In a virus that has already killed 5.2 million people across the globe, 50 or so new mutations sound like a nightmare for humanity. But in the age-old battle between microbes and mankind, that many genetic changes can turn the tide in any direction.
The next chapter of the pandemic could feature an omicron variant that spreads more readily than delta, blows past the defenses of a fully vaccinated immune system, and, like its coronavirus cousin that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, kills more than one-third of those who get it. That worst-case scenario would be an unfathomable disaster, said Dr. Bruce Walker, an immunologist and founding director of the Ragon Institute in Cambridge, Mass.
At the other end of a wide spectrum of possibilities, humanity could catch a break. Omicron could turn out to be a benign variant that spreads as fast as delta, is easily tamed by vaccine, and barely sickens its victims while leaving them with some immunity and little risk of developing "long COVID." In that case, "nature may have created a natural vaccine," Walker said.
But it will take weeks and months — and the work of a legion of scientists across the globe — to begin to know whether the omicron variant will change the course of the pandemic, and how.
In the waning days of 2021, microbiologists, immunologists and genetic scientists will offer key early insights into the variant's penchant for spread and its ability to thwart treatments and vaccines in the confines of a lab.
It will take until early 2022 for contact-tracing teams and epidemiologists to flesh out the emerging picture with real-world data on whom omicron sickens, and the extent of their illnesses. Then mathematical modelers will plug in what's known, fill in what's not, and forecast a range of outcomes.
Until those bits and pieces of evidence begin to congeal, all we have are anecdotes, said infectious-disease specialist Dr. Joshua Schiffer of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle, "and the anecdotes are not helpful."
The impact of the omicron variant "really needs to be assessed in a systematic way, looking at very large numbers of people," Schiffer said. "This is going to take a bit of time to parse."
Once again, the coming months will provide the public a lesson in both the science of uncertainty and the uncertainty of science. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the complete picture of omicron's impact will emerge only in pieces.
Almost two years into a pandemic, scientists need to take the measure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus yet again. This time, they have a variant changed by an unprecedented number of mutations with worrisome histories. And they are assessing its strengths and weaknesses in a diverse population of potential hosts that ranges from uninfected-and-entirely-susceptible to vaccinated-and-boosted.