Omicron, the most recent mutation of COVID-19, has created another surge in cases worldwide. This new variant is more transmissible than previous strains but appears to cause a less severe illness in most people, especially those who are vaccinated and boosted.
Studies are beginning to take place to research the characteristics of Omicron. In one pre-print lab study from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the viral cells appeared to stay in the mouth, nose, and upper bronchioles as opposed to attaching to lung tissue. Scientists infected hamsters with Omicron and watched how the virus spread within the animals. Unlike the previously dominant strain, Delta, few viral particles seemed to attach to lung tissue. This characteristic could explain why Omicron appears to cause a less severe illness: viruses in the lungs trigger an intense immune response from the body, while those in the upper respiratory tract cause a lesser one. In the latter region, viruses tend to cause less severe sickness but are more transmissible. As people talk, cough, and sneeze the active particles can be easily spread to others. Although the lab is not yet peer-reviewed, meaning its results are not guaranteed to be accurate or correct, it could explain traits seen in the Omicron strain.
In most people, Omicron appears quite similar to a common cold or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and is often milder than the flu. These other viruses are a part of everyday life, especially in the winter, and it is inevitable that COVID-19 too, will become part of the quotidian. While vaccines, boosters, and masking still minimize risk and symptoms, the first two no longer guarantee protection the way they once did. The reality is, at this point, COVID-19 is simply not a virus that the world can eradicate and will likely exist as an ever-present, endemic disease.
Currently, Omicron is the most widespread strain of COVID-19. Still, the virus mutates approximately every two months. There were many mutations of COVID-19 between Delta and Omicron, but no others have become widely spread. The virus mutates frequently; a new strain spreads in a small area for a brief time, then fades away, overtaken by another variant. Because of this rapid mutation, the future of COVID-19 is unclear. New variants could follow the trend set by Omicron—less dangerous but more transmissible—or they might develop in a different and unforeseen direction.