Omicron’s Silver Lining

The highly contagious Covid variant is by all indications less severe, so it will provide widespread immunity—and maybe even hasten the end of the pandemic.

New Covid-19 infections are reaching record levels in the U.S. and Europe. The surge is due both to the Delta variant that flourished over the past six months and to the new Omicron variant, which, in the week of December 19–December 25, became predominant, accounting for approximately 60 percent of U.S. cases. The rise of Omicron has largely been greeted with apprehension, but the new variant, which tends to cause mild illness, offers hope for a more promising path forward.

A preprint report from South Africa, where Omicron first spread in November, found that individuals infected with the variant had seen increased neutralizing immunity against Delta, making it less likely that Delta would re-infect them. This creates the possibility that large numbers of Omicron cases could immunize the population against past variants and perhaps future ones. Omicron is likely more transmissible than Delta, and Delta has been estimated to be about twice as transmissible as earlier variants. Omicron seems to replicate faster and in greater quantities than earlier variants, meaning that infected people release more virus to infect others. It also appears to be better at evading neutralizing immunity elicited by vaccines or previous infections with earlier variants, including Delta. Omicron was associated with a fivefold higher risk of reinfection and a two-to-four times higher risk of post-vaccination breakthrough compared with Delta in an English study.

These features suggest that Omicron will infect large numbers of people, including many with vaccine and natural immunity. But again, most of these cases will be mild since Omicron by all indications so far seems to be less severe than earlier variants …

This expansion of natural immunity will be especially important in countries with low levels of vaccination. Omicron is spreading worldwide, and the resulting immunity could limit the ongoing circulation of the virus and the emergence of new variants.

U.S. Omicron infections are likely to peak and start declining within the next few weeks. While most cases will be mild, the large numbers of cases will increase hospitalizations, straining capacity in some locations. But this should be short-lived, with only small increases in deaths. With luck, the surge of this highly contagious variant can provide widespread immunity and help hasten the end of the pandemic.

Read the full article in City Journal.

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