As Omicron Variant Spreads, Will the COVID Pandemic Ever End?

On November 26 the World Health Organization converged to discuss an emerging variant of COVID-19. The highly mutated variant, given the name Omicron, first emerged in South Africa and has since been found in at least 15 other countries.

The discovery of this new variant follows the observation of the Mu variant in January 2021, and the emergence of the Delta variant in December 2020, which is still responsible for the vast majority of COVID infections.

The identification of yet another new variant coincided with a spike in searches by Google users asking: "When will COVID end?" But, even when the global pandemic ends, what are the chances of things returning to the way they were before it began?

"COVID will probably always be with us, so something will always be different," Mark Jit, Professor of Vaccine Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), told Newsweek. "We'll probably need to get a COVID jab every year. Remote working will probably be more common than in 2019 regardless of what happens with COVID."

The vast majority of immunologists agree with Jit, that COVID isn't going anywhere soon. Earlier this year Nature asked 100 scientists in the field of immunology, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working with COVID if the virus could be eradicated.

Of the respondents, 90 percent said that when the COVID pandemic ends, it will not be the end of the virus. Instead, it is likely to become an endemic virus, meaning one that circulates in certain regions and communities across the globe for years to come.

Martin McKee is a professor of European public health also at LSHTM. He said that it is difficult to predict when the global COVID pandemic will end. He told Newsweek: "Just as with previous pandemics, we can expect everyday life to be different afterward but in ways that we cannot easily predict."

Yonatan Grad, Associate Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard University, , said in a statement earlier this year: "We know of a few respiratory viruses that were introduced into the human population, swept across the globe, and transitioned to endemic circulation, usually with annual wintertime peaks in incidence."

Grad gives an example of this from history; the 1918 flu pandemic, and other more recent examples of influenza pandemics in 1957 and 1968. "The pandemics generally began with infection fatality rates higher than observed in the years following their introduction as the viruses continued to circulate," he said.

"While declining fatality rates after pandemics may be due to a number of factors, one likely key contributor is that the first round of exposure to a pathogen confers some degree of protection against reinfection and severity of disease if reinfection does occur. Vaccines confer protection in much the same way, as the data from the COVID-19 vaccines have demonstrated."

Jit also compared the future of COVID as a virus to the flu. He said: "Flu was actually one of the leading causes of mortality in the U.K. prior to 2020, and partly responsible for a big spike of hospital and ICU admissions in winter.

"We dealt with it mainly by trying to get people vaccinated every winter, especially healthcare workers and the most vulnerable people. In the long run, we might deal with COVID in a similar way."

Jit adds that despite potential similarities in the response to COVID and flu, he believes that the former will remain the more severe disease of the two for at least the next few years.

Asked if it is possible that COVID may eventually evolve into a less severe virus, McKee expressed doubt. He told Newsweek: "It is possible, but it is certainly not inevitable. There are some who argue that viruses mutate to become less dangerous. However, this is based on a highly selective view of history."

He added that given that much of the transmission of COVID results from people who are asymptomatic, scientists can't be sure where the evolutionary pressures on the virus will arise from, and so how it will evolve.

Likewise, according to McKee, the evolution of our society as a result of COVID is tough to predict. "The pandemic has been an opportunity for people to reassess how they live their lives.

"I suspect that we will see more remote working, now people have realized what is possible over Zoom and other platforms. We may see some political changes, although this is especially difficult to anticipate."

Jit believes that even when the need for precautions like masks and social distancing ends, some of these things may become part of our culture. He gives an example of historical precedence for this: "In many Asian countries that were badly hit by SARS in 2003, a mask-wearing culture still remains—a lot of people would wear masks when they have sniffles or when they are on public transport.

"It might actually help keep the circulation of many other viruses as well as SARS-CoV-2, if people voluntarily wear masks more often in crowded places, or if it becomes more unacceptable to go to work if you aren't feeling well."

With regards to ending the pandemic, both Jit and McKee are in agreement—vaccination is vital. Jit said: "The most important thing we can do is to get vaccinated. All other measures will just buy us more time although that can be important too.

"Vaccination at high coverage is the only long-term exit strategy we have."

McKee said: "Do everything possible to get numbers down and keep them down. Get vaccinated, get boosted, avoid situations where the virus transmits, like poorly ventilated indoor spaces."

Both Jit and McKee also agree that if anything positive emerges from the COVID pandemic, it could be a greater sense of solidarity, especially between nations.

"Governments around the world need to work together to beat COVID. We've seen how important it is that all countries have access to vaccines and that countries have good health systems for picking up variants and letting the rest of the world know," Jit said. "We can only get ahead of this virus if everyone works together.  It's for the good of our own country, as well as for the rest of the world."

Will COVID ever end?
Stock image of an exhausted member of medical staff. The emergence of a new COVID variant has many people asking when the pandemic will come to an end. insta_photos/GETTY