The newly discovered Omicron variant of the original COVID 19 virus strain is under the microscope of genetic investigation. Initial studies indicate that the variant has a surprisingly high number of mutations ( about thirty) in the spike protein of the virus, allowing it to spread much more easily compared to the other variants. Field reports seem to substantiate this.
The world is on the threshold of the third year of the pandemic. To try and understand what might happen going forward, we could draw some lessons from the past.
The last major pandemic of the Spanish flu of a century back waned in its third year. We might wonder as to how that happened. There had been no vaccine then and consequently, the impact of the pandemic had been far more deadly in the initial years. Broad estimates indicate that 500 million people, which was a quarter of the world population at that time, had gotten infected as the virus spread around the globe through ships. Around one-tenth of those infected died which would work out to fifty million deaths! But by the third year of the pandemic, two shifts had taken place. Mankind had naturally developed antibodies and had to cope with a milder infection with the virus mutating to a much less dangerous variant which has remained with us since.
Now let’s jump a hundred years into the future to the present. The virus keeps on mutating as is its wont. We have been witness to the Alpha, Beta, Delta and now the Omicron variants. To date, the Delta variant, which has been the most aggressively predominant form, accounts for 99% of recorded infections.
But now comes the Omicron. Barely a week has passed since researchers in Botswana and South Africa alerted the world about this new strain. But the variant is already seen in more than twenty countries around the globe. Omicron is seen to have an infection spreading capability of more than three to five times that of the Delta variant. There would be no place to hide from the Omicron.
Today I read in the papers of a doctor in Bangalore, one of the two known infected individuals in that city, saying that ‘apart from body ache and low fever, he felt absolutely fine’. South African doctors too have reported that though the Omicron variant has the capability to evade vaccine induced immunity and reinfect an individual, it creates mild illness symptoms with almost nil requirement of hospitalization. Clearly, the Omicron is well on its way to displacing the Delta as the predominant COVID 19 spreader. And as it spreads and reinfects more and more of the world population, it also shows us the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
Why do I say that?
More than one and a half centuries back, Charles Darwin expounded his theory of evolution by natural selection. In it, he said that organisms best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and flourish. As organisms continue to mutate and have variations, there would be the inevitable selection of those which possess advantageous variations allowing them to multiply and survive.
So, it is in the case of virus strains. That variant which can spread the most and infect the host in a manner that the spread does not get restricted would take over. This is what happened in the Spanish flu pandemic. And my sense is this is what is now happening in the current pandemic with the Omicron taking center stage. Omicron impacts humans mildly allowing it to remain undetected and spread faster and faster. With new cycles of infections and reinfections along with natural as well as vaccine induced antibodies within the human population, the world would eventually reach a sustainable balance between the virus and its host.
If my above surmise is correct, the Omicron variant might just be heralding the beginning of the end of the current pandemic.