Omicron has raised a lot of questions about what comes next in the pandemic. What will future variants look like? Will this just become like the seasonal flu soon? Should we all just learn to live with COVID-19 and all the disruptions?
Two years in, we all know it’s impossible to predict the direction of COVID-19. But we’ve tackled some of the myths and misconceptions about what might come after Omicron.
Myth 1. Omicron isn’t really that bad.
The highly transmissible Omicron variant is spreading rapidly around the world. There are millions of new infections daily, and the variant has reached at least 130 countries. While it may be somewhat less deadly on average than earlier COVID-19 variants, it still can cause serious illness, long-term health complications, and death, especially in the unvaccinated.
And while Omicron is causing milder symptoms for some people, it is two to three times more likely to spread compared to Delta. That means cases are doubling at a much faster rate than previous variants. And that means hospitalizations are increasing and healthcare workers and health systems are struggling. Kids have to miss school, parents are missing work, and we’re back to empty shelves because of supply chain issues.
Myth 2. Future variants will all be less deadly.
You may have heard the “good” news that Omicron is less deadly than Delta — maybe even that it’s actually pretty mild. And you may have heard that future variants may all go this direction until COVID isn’t really that big of a deal anymore. But there is no guarantee that future variants will be less deadly or severe. In fact, variants could be more deadly and could become more resistant to our current vaccines.
Myth 3. COVID-19 is becoming endemic already. We don’t need to keep fighting the pandemic, we just need to wait for it to become like the seasonal flu.
Reaching a point where COVID isn’t as big of a threat would enable us to return to life as normal and to tackle the virus in a similar way to other more common health threats. But this is only possible when enough people – worldwide – have sufficient protection and immunity from the virus to reduce its immediate threat and the likelihood of new variants. If we were getting close to this point, holiday plans wouldn’t have been canceled. Hospital rates wouldn’t be spiking. And schools could have stayed open.
COVID-19 is still very much a pandemic.
Just waiting for COVID to become more like a seasonal flu will cost a lot of lives. That makes no sense when we have the tools (aka vaccines) to protect people from the virus.
Myth 4. We all just need to learn to live with COVID-19.
“Learning to live” with COVID-19 at this stage of the pandemic means accepting all of the uncertainty, instability, and disruption that comes along with that. All the disruptions to school, work, travel, the economy, and routine healthcare. Do we really want that?
Myth 5. When it comes to COVID spreading in my community, what matters most is the vaccination rate in my country.
During a global pandemic, things like national vaccination rates only matter so much. This is a global problem that needs a global solution. Focusing only on domestic vaccination rates is a recipe for disaster (and more variants).
As long as the majority of the world is not vaccinated and the virus is able to replicate unchecked, variants will keep forming and spreading. To tackle this pandemic, world leaders and pharmaceutical companies need to take a global approach and ensure vaccines are available to everyone who wants one, regardless of where they live.
Myth 6. A lot of the world isn’t vaccinated because they don’t want to be.
Vaccine hesitancy is certainly an issue — both in countries with a lot of vaccines like the US and in countries with a limited supply of vaccines.
But the biggest reason for low global vaccination rates is still the unequal and unpredictable distribution of vaccines around the world. High-income countries have purchased and administered the vast majority of COVID-19 vaccines. Low-income countries need more vaccines for their populations. And once we address the supply issues on vaccine supply, we must scale up education, access, and incentives to overcome hesitancy in low-income countries — just as high-income counties are.
Myth 7. Low-income countries don’t have vaccines because they didn’t dedicate enough resources to securing vaccines.
That is simply not true. The uneven supply and distribution of vaccines is a result of the world’s richest countries hoarding doses and monopolizing the means to produce them.
With cash in hand, high-income countries were the first at the table with pharmaceutical companies. That allowed them to sign 48 deals for vaccine doses before any other countries or global bodies even had the chance. Groups like the African Union — which was well organized and ready to purchase doses early on in the pandemic — were effectively closed out from making deals.
Now, high-income countries need to step up and give every country a fair shot at securing enough vaccines for their populations.
So what exactly will happen next then?
No one knows for sure. But one thing we do know is that widespread global vaccination remains the best way to end this crisis. This will require more equitable access to the global supply of vaccines, and funding to ensure doses get into people’s arms.
Leaders of rich countries need to fund the global response, share doses, and break down barriers to vaccination. And vaccine manufacturers need to do a better job of sharing the know-how to create the vaccines, so that more of the world can manufacture and distribute vaccines.
Demand action now, so we can all go back to a more predictable life.