The pandemic that has convulsed the world for more than two years is entering a “new phase” globally and the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus could help set the stage for a return to normalcy in the months ahead, according to a top health official in Europe.
Dr. Hans Kluge, director for the World Health Organization’s European region, warned that it was too early for nations to drop their guard, with so many people unvaccinated around the world. But, he said, between vaccination and natural immunity through infection, “omicron offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization.”
The question that remains, however, is what normal looks like — and how long it could last.
Over the past two years, people around the world have become exhaustingly familiar with the wicked way the virus has of evolving and confounding expectations.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, offered a more cautious assessment of the moment, emphasizing the risks posed by possible new variants.
“It’s dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame,” he said on Monday at an executive board meeting of the organization. “On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
In places where omicron is just gaining a foothold, the known number of new infections is staggering. (Case numbers are largely thought to be an undercount given issues with access to testing and the use of at-home tests that may not always be officially reported.)
Germany’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said he expects numbers to peak in mid-February, with as many as 600,000 new cases per day.
Omicron is also just now spreading across Eastern and Central Europe, including in many countries with worryingly low vaccination rates.
In countries across Asia that have pursued a “zero-COVID” policy with stringent lockdowns, the path omicron will chart is unclear.
But it is the very speed and depth of the spread of omicron that also offers some of the cautious optimism among public health officials.
Scientists have said that the omicron variant will undoubtedly leave behind much higher levels of immunity in the population. But the protection offered by a previous infection may wane over time, and may not apply as well to future versions of the virus.
The sharp rise in cases in the places where omicron has already taken hold has often been followed by a remarkable decline, such as South Africa, Britain and Israel.
As research has emerged that omicron causes less severe disease and vaccines remain protective against the worst outcomes, many public health experts have encouraged less focus on cases and more emphasis on hospitalizations amid record-breaking spikes.
In the United States, omicron cases appear to have crested in the Northeast, parts of the Upper Midwest and other areas where it first arrived, while nationally, new cases and hospital admissions have leveled off in recent days. But hospitals in other areas across the country remain overstretched, straining to handle patients after multiple surges and staffing shortages, including in Mississippi, where nearly all of the state’s acute-care hospitals have been pushed to capacity. And new deaths remain high.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top pandemic adviser, said on Sunday that while there would be pain in the weeks ahead, especially as omicron moves through lower-vaccinated areas, the hope was that its continued spread would not disrupt society to the same degree as other variants.
Still, he, too, cautioned about the possibility of future variants. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but we have to be prepared,” he said.
Given how the virus has offered new surprises and challenges, Kluge also offered a mix of caution and optimism.
“The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention,” Kluge said. “Backlogs and waiting lists have grown, essential health services have been disrupted, and plans and preparations for climate-related health stresses and shocks have been put on hold.”
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the WHO estimate that COVID vaccines saved the lives of 469,186 people aged 60 years and over in 33 countries in the region, between December 2020 and November 2021.
“Too many people who need the vaccine remain unvaccinated,” Kluge said. “This is helping to drive transmission, prolonging the pandemic and increasing the likelihood of new variants.”
New fast-spreading variants will most likely emerge — and, if previous variants are any indication, they may be only distantly related to omicron, scientists said. And there is no reason to believe that the virus will evolve only into milder forms.
Eventually, scientists believe that the coronavirus will become endemic and start circulating at more predictable levels, though how serious a threat it poses at that stage will depend in large part on what levels of illness countries decide to tolerate and how hospitals manage to cope.
“This pandemic, like all other pandemics before it, will end, but it is far too early to relax,” Kluge said. He added that it was “almost a given that new COVID-19 variants will emerge and return.”
But the world was in a much better place to deal with what might come, he noted.
“I believe that a new wave could no longer require the return to pandemic-era population-wide lockdowns or similar measures,” he said.