Monday, December 06, 2021

Wildly optimistic Omicron musing

I keep reading that the three big questions about the Omicron variant are:
  1. How contagious it is (i.e. whether it is more or less contagious than the currently dominant Delta variant).
  2. How dangerous it is (i.e. whether it will cause more or less hospitalizations and deaths than the Delta variant)
  3. How much it can evade acquired immunity from prior COVID infections and vaccines.
We don't know the answer to these questions yet, although we have a little information already.

Re: #1, Omicron seems to be spreading fast in South Africa where they actually are good at monitoring the variants of infections detected in public (the U.S. is not good at that. Most positive COVID test samples are never genetically sequenced to see what variant it is). Re: #2, so far there have only been anecdotes of mild infections from Omicron. But hospitalizations and deaths happen later if there is a serious infection and we have only known about this variant for less than 2 weeks. As far as I know, that's all we really have so far.

I am sure more information will come out by the end of the month, but in the meantime, why not speculate wildly? That's what everyone else seems to be doing, usually with dire predictions of failing vaccines and overwhelmed ICUs. But there is a better, more optimistic scenario:

Delta is dominant because it out-competed original COVID because it was able to increase the viral load it produces which made it spread much faster. As a result, original COVID is effectively extinct. The disease that kept so much of humanity hiding indoors in the second half of March 2020 (and earlier for people in China) has been defeated, just not by us. It was beaten by other COVID strains. What if Omicron is even better at spreading than Delta, but is a lot less dangerous to people. In other words, the answer to Q1 is "very contagious" but the answer to Q2 is "not very dangerous." What if Omicron is really really not dangerous, only producing asymptomatic or extremely mild symptoms at all. That combination would be ideal. Because then Omicron could go out and out-compete Delta and any other variant that are still out there, effectively wiping out the strains that pose a serious threat to human health. In other words, there is a plausible scenario, although I bet it is highly unlikely, that a new scary-sounding variant is actually a path out of the COVID pandemic crisis.

The caveats: I have little idea of what I am talking about. I'm just playing with possible answers to the questions I have seen posed in the media about the new variant. I have zero background in immunology and it could be that the scenario I am describing is impossible for some reason. But I do think with so many people speculating about the worst-case scenario of what Omicron could mean, to also consider what the best-case scenario would look like. There is a wide range of where this could go. While bad stuff often happens they do not always happen. Sometimes we do luck out.