“Levels of concern about Omicron tend to be lower than with previous variants,” Simon Williams, a researcher in public attitudes and behaviors towards Covid-19 at Swansea University, told CNN. For many, “the ‘fear factor of Covid’ is lower,” he said.
But some within the scientific community are cautiously optimistic that Omicron could be the pandemic’s last act — providing huge swathes of the world with “a layer of immunity,” and moving us closer to an endemic stage when Covid-19 is comparable to seasonal illnesses like the cold or flu.
“My own view is that it’s becoming endemic, and it will continue to stay endemic for some time — as has happened with other coronaviruses,” said David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“All viruses try to become endemic, and to me this one looks like it’s succeeding,” he said.
Covid-19 has evolved with great unpredictability, and the variant that superseded Delta could have been more sinister, experts say; but the world ultimately got a dominant strain that is sweeping through populations with ease, without causing the same degree of hospitalizations, severe illnesses and deaths that previous variants have done.
Experts caution that there may be setbacks along the way — just as Omicron’s make-up was unexpected, the next variant could present a more serious public health risk and delay the end of the pandemic.
And many countries, particularly where vaccination coverage is low, could still face overwhelmed hospitals due to the current Omicron wave.
But a political urgency is appearing in much of the West to return societies to a sense of normality — with the transmissibility of Omicron forcing leaders to choose between rolling back public health measures or seeing their workforces and economies risk grinding to a standstill.
And for the first time since the spread of Covid-19 stunned the world in early 2020, some epidemiologists and leaders are willing to entertain the prospect that the virus might be making steps toward endemic status.
‘The rules of the game have changed’
The question that scientists and wider society will grapple with throughout 2022 is when Covid-19 will leave its current stage and enter endemicity.
A disease that is endemic has a constant presence in a population but does not affect an alarmingly large number of people or disrupt society, as typically seen in a pandemic.
Experts don’t expect Covid to fully disappear in any of our lifetimes. Instead, it will eventually reach a period similar to several other illnesses, where “most people will be infected as children, possibly multiple times, and as those infections accumulate, they build up an immunity,” according to Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh and the author of a book about the early stages of the pandemic.
“That’s the situation we’re heading towards,” he said. “Omicron is another dose of virus. We will all be on average less susceptible to disease having had that dose, or having had the vaccine.”