Here we go, friends—the redline on the test means I’ve got COVID. Seriously, that’s what I’m saying, I contracted OMICRON. I’m double vaccinated, still waiting for my booster, and unfortunately, I’m not alone. All of you out there who have been infected, become sick or are worried when OMICRON will come for you, well, I was asking myself the same questions you are. And guess what? When it happened, it happened fast.
First and foremost, what the hell! I mean, what have we been doing the past two years? All the masks, staying home, the hand sanitizer, the vaccines, the boosters. And I somehow still caught the virus. So, what does this mean? Is COVID going to come for all of us? Do I now have COVID superhero immunity after contracting OMICRON? In the future, will what I received even work with two shots and a booster? What is this OMICRON thing mean for the possible end of the pandemic? Did science fail us?
So let’s chat about it. First, some history because a pandemic eight weeks ago means nothing. What is OMICRON? In late November, doctors in South Africa called up the World Health Organization (WHO). They said, “Hey, we found a new mutant strain in that virus that causes COVID-19.” The WHO was like, “Cool, thanks for letting us know!” And South Africa was like, “Oh, by the way, everyone is getting it.”
That’s when things, shall we say, got a little out of hand. This new variant was given the name OMICRON, which sounds like an excellent new superhero character, but it is not. Unfortunately, it is a mutant strain or variant of SARS-CoV-2, which is everyone’s least favourite acronym and the virus behind this pandemic. So why are we getting mutants? Well, it’s pretty simple—if you let a virus replicate in millions of hosts for two years, natural selection will make a new version. Never underestimate natural selection! The oldest rule in the book, and you will lose every time.
Yes, OMICRON is significantly more contagious than earlier variants. In less than two months, it now accounts for more than 95% of all cases reported in Canada, the US, and pretty much everywhere it’s shown up. If you get SARS-CoV-2 now or in the near future, it’s almost certainly going to be OMICRON. Why is OMICRON currently more contagious? It reproduces in the airways something like 70 times faster than past variants. This means more of the virus is being coughed out and inhaled, resulting in an increased germination period. This means, on average, you have to spend less time with an infected person to get OMICRON, and the things that we put in the way of getting sick like masks and vaccines might have a lower level of protection versus the earlier variants—hence this is why millions of people are getting OMICRON over the past two months.
As I am writing this, somewhere around 800,000 people are getting infected with COVID every day, just in North America. 800,000 people a day is a lot of people, and that’s just the ones we know about. Some experts think that maybe only one in four or five people who tested positive report it. Some people have taken the test at home and don’t tell anyone, including the government. To be completely honest, that is what I did. I just took the test. If you’re reading this in the future, go ahead and fact-check my comment. Some experts think that maybe 40% of our population will have been infected by OMICRON by mid-March here in North America. So that means in a span of eight-twelve weeks, four out of ten people will be infected by OMICRON. That is insane! This has some researchers saying things like, “I’ve never seen anything this infectious.” This may or may not be the case, but this is not something researchers typically say.
Now, why is this happening? OMICRON infects with less resistance because it’s mutated in specific places, particularly on the spike protein it uses to get inside our system. Since those mutations change the way the virus looks and how it’s shaped. The antibodies immune system defenders inside our bodies, whether they’re from vaccines or previous infection with some other flavour of COVID, causes those antibodies not to recognize OMICRON as well as they did with previous variants, which means even if you have the vaccine or if you’ve had COVID before you might still get sick. Hence this double-vaccinated infected guy!
Researchers have looked at how OMICRON infects animals which are commonly done to create a model for how the virus affects humans. Those experiments suggest that it’s exceedingly capable of outperforming old variants at infecting the nose and all the upper body. Still, it’s less competent at infecting lung cells which could be why it’s so proficient at getting passed from one person to another but isn’t causing any severe disease.
So is OMICRON less severe? Yes. Would I wish it upon anyone? No. Multiple lines of evidence support that, on average, OMICRON causes a less severe form of COVID-19 in all age groups—but doctors and scientists have been very clear here, “less severe is not the same as mild.”
I’m going to do my best to convey to you my personal experience with OMICRON as a healthy individual, in pretty good shape, sleeps enough, and has a fairly decent diet, most of the time. I had a fever, night sweats, and encountered the strangest fever dreams and the inability to concentrate on anything for longer than 2.9 seconds. The worst has been this sore throat coupled with coughing and chest congestion that feels like someone is rubbing needles inside my lungs. It honestly feels like it’s coming from the very depths of my soul. Not a fun time! Seriously, don’t get this if you can help it.
Unvaccinated people are overwhelmingly more likely to go to the hospital if they get COVID, OMICRON included. Still, the evidence is stacking up that adults with OMICRON are much less likely to go to the ER and be hospitalized, require oxygen, or die from the OMICRON infection. You can do some of your own back of envelope math here and see that with an extremely high rate of spread, OMICRON is sending fewer people to the hospital and at a much lower rate. It also means that even with countless more infections and a smaller percentage of hospitalizations, a massive number is still a huge number. This is why the risk of infection spikes, overwhelming our healthcare systems, is still a genuine concern even if it’s less severe. Of course, we also don’t know how OMICRON might contribute to long-term COVID symptoms that affect people months down the road. Anyone out there who’s immunocompromised or has any sort of pre-existing condition that might lessen their ability to fight this virus, or if you are unvaccinated, your experience with OMICRON could be potentially much more dangerous.
Speaking of vaccines, let’s get it out there. I know some of you are wondering, does this mean the vaccines don’t work? Was it all some big scam? Throughout this pandemic, data has made it clear you are many times more likely to go to the hospital from COVID if you’re not vaccinated. You are many times more likely to die from COVID if you’re not vaccinated. There’s no reason to think that will be any different with OMICRON. We’re already seeing data that says fully boosted people are up to 88% less likely to be hospitalized with OMICRON. Well, I can hear some of you saying, “it doesn’t matter for me because I’m young and healthy, so if I get it, it’s going to be a mild case.” If you think that you can control or know in advance how your body will react to this virus because you’re young or strong or in shape, you can’t. You can only hope. You can look at statistics, but you cannot see the future. We can only prepare ourselves to be as protected as possible, and vaccines along with booster doses remain the safest, easiest way to protect yourself, and in most places throughout the world, they are free. If someone offered you a safe free alternative to lower your chance of dying, why wouldn’t you take it? Here’s maybe another way to look at it. Every time I get on my bike, there’s this minuscule barely above zero chance of getting into a crash and being hurt or even killed. But there’s a cheap, easy way to lower that tiny, tiny chance even further, and I use it every time, and I bet you do too. Our helmets. So why not get vaccinated? Yes, you might still get sick with OMICRON like me, but you are much less likely to have an awful time.
One of the biggest failures from the start of this pandemic was communication. We need to work on communication to educate people in the future, so it’s clear vaccines are not and were never going to be a magic wand that would make you utterly invincible from ever getting infected with COVID.
There are many reasons for that.
- One is that germs are constantly evolving and being pressured to evade our efforts to make them extinct.
- Variations in how the immune system responds and develops long-term protection are different for various people.
- Simply put, that’s how vaccines work.
I mean, think back to the shots you got when you were a kid. They almost always involve later doses after the first one to keep your immune system as ready as possible, and guess what, infections still leak through. Smallpox is still the only disease that we’ve entirely eradicated with vaccines. The rest of those vaccines we take have saved countless lives because wherever they might fail at preventing infection, they actually do an excellent job and, in most cases and are surprisingly effective at preventing severe disease. That is true for COVID vaccines as well. Yes, vaccinated and boosted people are still getting sick (I’m one of them) but with a smaller and smaller percentage of sick people dying. And that is what vaccines have done and continue to do for us. It would be great if vaccines gave us some invincible virus forcefield but saving lives is a success no matter how you slice the pie.
One of the most interesting questions that have come out is whether getting infected with the virus naturally might give you a better form of immunity. Remember, immunity is not some on-off kind of thing. It works in degrees of protection, and different people will have different responses on the individual level, so we can only talk about averages here. Before OMICRON, getting the vaccine or having a previous infection, or both, appeared to reduce people’s risk of reinfection to a similar degree with maybe a slight edge to the vaccine. Unfortunately, both forms of immunity will get weaker over time which is why we get boosters. Boosters help raise vaccine immunity. Now let’s back up. Suppose the end result is just getting protected. In that case, vaccine immunity wins out because you get all that immunity without any risks, no matter how small they might be. Unfortunately, now, OMICRON can sneak past our natural antibodies in the same way that it can sneak past vaccine antibodies. It’s a mutant, so everyone’s less protected here than we were from earlier variants. What’s extremely interesting is that getting both vaccines an infection-induced immunity seems to create a kind of hybrid immunity that is better than either one alone. So if you already have the vaccine or the vaccine plus booster and then you get a breakthrough infection, not only are you less likely to get dangerously sick, you’ll more than likely get better immunity in the end. That means you might have “super antibodies,” the Transformer kind, if that’s how you like to think.
Think of being in a pandemic is like going to school, and getting COVID is like taking your final exams. How much practice do you want to give your body before the test? Do you want a pop quiz with no preparation, or would you want to take as many lessons as you can first? If you want the best a-plus immunity, get the vaccine.
But there might be some silver lining because OMICRON might give us a path out of this pandemic. Specifically, what was a pandemic virus will probably become an endemic virus. When a virus is a pandemic, it simultaneously infects people everywhere and in significant numbers. Basically, the last two years. When a virus becomes endemic, it keeps circulating in different populations around the globe. It’s less prevalent and has less impact on society, and it’s all-in-all more manageable. That doesn’t mean it’s no longer dangerous or that people aren’t still going to get very sick or die, but its impact will be much less. Now, if OMICRON basically outcompetes every other variant and drives them all extinct by sheer numbers and enough people get infected with OMICRON, recover, and develop long-lasting immunity to it, and it doesn’t further evolve into some more nasty version of its contagious self, then there’s a chance. The pandemic phase of COVID will start to fizzle out, and the pandemic will become endemic. Hopefully, this less severe form of COVID will establish itself as a permanent part of our existence. It might flare up in smaller pockets around the world from time to time, maybe every year, every ten years, no one knows. No one truly knows if OMICRON will end this pandemic, but it’s plausible, possible, even likely, depending on whom you ask. If there is a way out of this pandemic, then OMICRON might be the light at the end of the tunnel.
Question. Being this close to the finish line, why not do everything in your power to make sure that you walk out of the other end of the tunnel? There’s a famous saying, “it’s really difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Science is the best tool existing to make that impossible task just a little easier because it lets us figure out exactly which lessons from the past will most likely help us tomorrow. As the universe continues to change and surprise us, science is our best guide. All things considered, I think science is doing a pretty good job keeping us safe.
Never stop believing, asking the question ‘Why?’ and being unique.