Just as the turkey settled into our stomach, phones across the world illuminated with app alerts and notifications about a new discovery — a coronavirus variant called B.1.1.529 had been discovered and it might have the ability to evade vaccines.
Soon enough, there was talk that B.1.1.529 could spread fast and furious. The World Health Organization called the variant one of concern, designating it “omicron” based on the letter from the Greek alphabet.
Since its announcement, all the coronavirus news has been tied to this one variant, which has dozens of mutations along with the spike proteins that could make it more likely to infect humans.
But is the omicron variant the doomsday variant scientists have worried about?
What is the doomsday variant?
Experts told Newsweek in August they were worried about a potential “doomsday variant” that could greatly reshape society as we know it.
“I wouldn’t be incredibly surprised if something else came along that’s even more transmissible,” Eric Vail, director of molecular pathology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told Newsweek at the time.
Scientists told Newsweek that one person could create the most dangerous variant yet. If one person’s COVID-19 infection creates a mutation that makes it more transmissible, they will pass it on from there.
Sharone Green, the infectious disease researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Newsweek that a fast-spreading variant won’t slow down.
“If a mutation comes up anywhere that’s more transmissible, it will be selected out to propagate,” she said.
Allowing the virus to circulate through the community so quickly and rapidly would lead to mutations, he said.
“There’s always a risk of, as you get more circulation of the virus in the community, that you’ll get enough accumulation of new mutations to get a variant substantially different than the ones we’re seeing now,” Fauci said on the MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
We’ve seen scary COVID-19 variants pop up before. Kei Sato, of the University of Tokyo, told Reuters that the lambda variant could “be a potential threat to the human society.” Similarly, the World Health Organization said the mu variant might have the mutations that could make the variant evade COVID-19 vaccines. Cases of that variant dropped off dramatically, though, due to the widespread surge of the delta variant.
Dr. Mark Dybul, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Medicine and an immunologist, only recently suggested that the doomsday variant — one that would be resistant to the COVID-19 vaccines — would emerge by the spring.
“There’s simply no way you can have such low rates of vaccination around the world with the virus ping-ponging between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. I’m an immunologist. The probability of us seeing a vaccine-resistant strain is very high,” he said, according to Fortune.
Is omicron the doomsday variant?
So far, we don’t know if omicron is really a doomsday variant. Experts have said we’re about two weeks away from knowing how well the COVID-19 vaccines can tackle the omicron variant. By that time, we’ll also learn if the omicron variant can spread quickly through populations or if it causes more severe outcomes.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association who first sounded the alarms on the variant, told BBC Sunday that many of her patients have experienced mild symptoms so far and there isn’t much reason to panic yet. More research needs to be done before there’s any major reaction.
Similarly, multiple experts told The Sydney Morning Herald that the omicron variant might be a sign of what’s to come next in the pandemic — new variants and strains of the coronavirus that are less virulent, meaning they might spread fast but cause fewer severe outcomes.
Regardless, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday that vaccination can help people stay safe until we know more about the coronavirus. “We have to use every kind of tool in our toolbox to keep (Omicron) from getting in a situation that makes this worse,” he said.
The omicron variant is a sign that the virus will keep evolving, Collins said, so it’s important to stay vigilant until we know more about what’s to come.
“It also means we need to pay attention to those mitigation strategies that people are just really sick of, like wearing masks while indoors with other people who might not be vaccinated and keeping that social distance issue,” he added. “I know, America — you’re really tired of hearing those things. But the virus is not tired of us. And it’s shapeshifting itself.”