An Israeli immunologist suggested this week that the spread of the newly detected Omicron variant — which has sparked panic and resulted in travel bans worldwide — may actually signal the beginning of the end of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
"In my view maybe this new variant is the light at the end of the tunnel," Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Zvika Granot said Tuesday in an interview with i24 News, an Israeli international media network, adding, "This is a variant that is highly infectious but maybe not as aggressive."
During the interview, Granot argued that pandemics don't normally end due entirely to an effective vaccine. Rather, he said, "herd immunity" is often achieved when the virus ultimately mutates to become highly transmissible but minimally aggressive.
There are early indicators coming out of South Africa — where Omicron was first detected last week — showing that such may be the case for the new variant of concern.
"When you look at the future and try to envision how this will end one day, it's most likely not going to be because we got a fantastic vaccine. It just doesn't work this way and we have a lot of experience with viruses like the flu," Granot said.
"The way that it will end, at least in my view, is when we encounter this new variant that is highly infectious but is not very aggressive, meaning that a lot of people will get infected but none of them will develop serious symptoms. And in a sense that will be the way the population will really gain herd immunity, and then the coronavirus will just fade away," he added.
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Mass hysteria followed Omicron's identification last week, as scientists issued warnings about the strain's unprecedented number of mutations and governments around the world enacted travel bans to stem the pathogen's spread. Global markets also cratered in response to concerns over the new variant.
On Monday, Moderna's CEO caused further alarm by suggesting that current COVID-19 vaccines may not be effective against Omicron.
Granot was careful to note that further study is needed and that there still may be reasons for concern. It's certainly possible that the current vaccines are less effective against the variant, he said, though he noted that "the truth is, we really don't know."
But the issue of vaccine efficacy could prove largely inconsequential if Omicron is found to be minimally aggressive, as Granot surmised.
He noted that such a revelation would not be surprising since respiratory viruses like the coronavirus generally fizzle out by evolving to "be less and less aggressive."