Blake Murdoch is an Edmonton-based senior research associate with the Health Law Institute.
Many of us have now survived a COVID-19 infection, some with little effort and others with lasting and debilitating effects. (Sadly not everyone made it – rest in peace, Grandfather.) For some, there is a sense of calm that the worst must be over, that we will be able to heal and that the society we knew might return.
But can our bodies handle, say, 10 more COVID-19 infections over the next three years? That’s not “fear porn” – it is a possible scenario based on how we are handling Omicron.
The idea that herd immunity from widespread Omicron infection will last longer than a few months is a mass delusion propagating in all forms of media. It’s the type of delusion sure to gain traction in a world where we are all absolutely sick and tired of the pandemic. It even ignores reality from three months ago, when Omicron didn’t exist and the idea of us benefitting from infecting everyone was a widely condemned idea.
Consider a recent news article in The New York Times and elsewhere titled “Omicron’s spread could end ‘emergency phase’ of pandemic, world health official says.” The title and leading idea rely upon comments about “plausible hope for stabilization” from the World Health Organization’s European director, despite another quote in the article from the WHO director-general about how this kind of thinking is dangerous, and how conditions are ideal for the production of new variants.
The reality is we are causing COVID-19 to mutate on a scale never seen before. By allowing the virus to infect much of the world, we are generating trillions upon trillions of viruses. Because the world has chosen not to pursue adequate public health measures, new variants will be evolutionarily selected for their ability to evade protection from vaccination and infection. And by the way, variants aren’t invariably milder than those they precede – Alpha and Delta were both more severe than the original strain.
Though there will undoubtedly be other variants, the heir apparent to Omicron is likely already known: Omicron BA.2. This strain is best understood as its own variant because it has so many additional mutations. The head of the public health agency in Denmark, where BA.2 is now spreading widely, has explained that people who were infected with Omicron can be reinfected with BA.2 shortly after. The idea isn’t novel: Two thirds of people in England who caught Omicron said they previously had COVID-19.
BA.2 may soon get its own Greek letter name from the WHO, because it is dominant in India and growing exponentially in Europe by heavily outcompeting Omicron there. Canada has already recorded more than 100 cases.
So, is everybody who had Omicron in December and January ready to get COVID-19 again in March?
Aside from rolling the dice over and over on avoiding severe disease, continual reinfection raises huge concerns around disability-inducing long COVID. Alongside known risks of COVID-19 infection including organ damage, heart attacks, strokes and pediatric diabetes, scientists are now finding evidence that mild and moderate COVID-19 can cause immune-system damage and dysfunction. This could give rise to a host of immunodeficiency and/or autoimmune issues and it could make subsequent COVID-19 infections more severe.
Of course, there is plenty of hope that continually updated vaccines and antiviral medications will put a huge dent in long-term effects of COVID-19, but there are no guarantees. One thing that is nearly certain is that those who remain unvaccinated are likely to have comparably poor outcomes.
If we continue to treat Omicron’s transmissibility as an intractable problem that makes infection inevitable, we are accepting that, without a scientific silver bullet that so far doesn’t exist, we may be stuck in this pandemic indefinitely. So far, vaccine updates, such as Pfizer’s Omicron vaccine, have not arrived in time for their period of greatest need.
We need to look past what is right in front of our noses. If we keep approaching every variant as if it will be the last, we will never get out of this. The people who have been saying “this isn’t over” have been ignored at almost every step of this pandemic, and they have also been right every time. We can sit around and hope they are eventually wrong, or we can listen to their recommendations: N95 masks for all, sweeping changes to indoor ventilation and filtration, vaccinations and antivirals for the entire world, and measures to actually curb transmission until science can overtake the pace of viral mutation.
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