No one knows when the pandemic will end after omicron upended most hope

No one knows when the pandemic will end after omicron upended most hope

Marcel Stevens

Marcel Stevens

Marcel has over 12 years in journalism who enjoys writing, jogging, reading and tennis.

Residents wait in line at a Covid-19 mobile testing site in the Times Square neighborhood of New York, U.S., on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.

Jeenah Moon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Senior U.S. health officials have sought to reassure a pandemic-weary public that the country is moving closer to a time when Covid-19 won’t dominate our daily lives, as an unprecedented surge of infections and hospitalizations declines in many parts of the country.

White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview this week the U.S. is heading out of the “full-blown pandemic phase” of Covid-19. Fauci has made clear the U.S. won’t eradicate Covid, but he’s confident the nation can bring the virus under control so it no longer threatens to push hospitals to their breaking point or disrupt the economy. At that moment, people could return to a semblance of normal life after two years of disruption and uncertainty following repeated waves of infection.

“The president has been clear that we’re moving toward a time when Covid won’t disrupt our daily lives, a time when Covid won’t be a constant crisis so we’re no longer fearing lockdowns and shutdowns, but getting back to safely doing what we all love,” Jeff Zients, the White House’s Covid response coordinator, said during a news conference Wednesday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, answers questions during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and new emerging variants at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. January 11, 2022.

Greg Nash | Reuters

More mild

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following an emergency talks over the new SARS-like virus spreading in China and other nations in Geneva on January 22, 2020.

Pierre Albouy | AFP | Getty Images

What is endemic

This steady level of transmission is typically reached when the virus’s reproductive rate is one or less. That means everyone who gets the virus infects roughly one other person. The original Covid strain had a reproductive rate of about two, while people with delta typically infected five or more other people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Omicron is estimated to be more than three times as contagious as delta, according to a study by Japanese researchers.

The emergence of omicron, with its ability to infect people who are vaccinated and even boosted, has challenged notions of when a sustained endemic phase will come and what it will look like in the context of Covid. Though estimates range, a study by public health authorities in Denmark found that omicron was 2.7 to 3.7 times more transmissible than delta among people fully vaccinated, making it easier for the virus to cause outbreaks even in populations with high immunization rates.

Omicron has also proven adept at reinfecting people, with a recent study in the U.K. finding that two-thirds of people who caught the variant said they had Covid before. This makes herd immunity even more elusive than originally thought. In the first year of the pandemic, government officials hoped of the global vaccination campaign would help eradicate Covid by reaching herd immunity, where enough people have natural or vaccine-induced protection that the virus doesn’t have new hosts to infect.

Herd immunity


Pre-pandemic life

‘Synonym for surrender’

Overwhelmed hospitals

Omicron shots

The CEOs of Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna have all said they are concerned about waning immunity and the possible emergence of new variants. Pfizer and BioNTech launched a clinical trial of a vaccine that targets omicron last month, and the companies expect to have it ready by March. Moderna has started a clinical trial of a booster shot that specifically targets omicron.

Pfizer’s and Merck‘s antiviral pills that fight Covid have also been promoted as potential game changers, providing treatments people at risk of severe disease can easily take on an outpatient basis, reducing hospitalizations and alleviating the burden on health-care systems.

Fauci has said the vaccines and booster shots are a bridge that will get the U.S. get to a point where the antiviral pills are deployed on a larger scale to help treat people who get infected so the virus no longer poses a threat to normal life and the economy. The U.S. has ordered 20 million courses of Pfizer’s pill, Paxlovid, with 10 million expected through June. Supplies, however, are currently limited. So far, 265,000 courses of the treatment have been delivered in the U.S.

Lawler warned that the antiviral pills are not a panacea that will end the pandemic. It would be similar to claiming people do not die of bacterial disease anymore because we have effective antibiotics, he said.