Mar 24, 2022 - Health

Failing upward: Omicron may help the U.S. handle the next COVID wave

Confirmed and projected COVID-19 cases
Data: IHME and CDC; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

The new COVID-19 variant taking root in the U.S. probably won't pose a big health threat to many Americans, thanks in part to this winter's Omicron surge.

Why it matters: Omicron set new records for cases and hospitalizations but gave built-in immunity to most of those who got infected. That temporary protection should help flatten the curve as the similar, more infectious strain known as BA.2 sweeps across the nation.

  • The "stealth" variant is thought to be 1.5 times as transmissible as the original Omicron strain, and could extend the Omicron surge in most of the world.

Our thought bubble: It's a rare case where failure to contain the virus paid a short-term dividend. But that’s no consolation to immunocompromised people and other at-risk populations who still could get sick and help produce new variants.

Driving the news: BA.2 spiked in parts of Europe like the Netherlands, after a rapid decline in mask use and other pandemic precautions.

  • Americans, in contrast, were returning to pre-pandemic behavior even before vaccine and mask mandates fell — and logging millions of Omicron infections in the process.
  • The post-infection immunity could give some a pass for the next round, assuming they don't have other underlying health conditions.

What they're saying: "Our immune systems know how to play against BA.2, especially if we first played against BA.1," according to Larry Corey, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, who likens the situation to playing tennis against the Williams sisters.

  • "Our cells would be left with the memory of playing the immune match with the virus — and that memory arms us against the other sibling. We'll see how the cross-protection plays out."

"I don't think it's going to be as dramatic as Europe because the recent pandemic history has really been quite different and because most of Europe has been pretty COVID averse, whereas parts of the United States have been quite COVID curious," Bill Hanage, a professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said on the "In The Bubble" podcast.

  • "Europe changed just at the point BA.2 arose or arrived ... it had a lot more material to work with."

Yes, but: Experts say we shouldn't be lulled into a sense of false security, and that it's hard to predict COVID's next moves because of its ability to evade many of the immune responses we now have.

  • Corey said it's vital to continue improving vaccines and beef up monitoring of new variants, especially in areas like sub-Saharan Africa where vaccination rates are low and there are large numbers of immunosuppressed people with HIV.
  • As for the U.S., "the continuation of the Omicron outbreaks outlines the importance of receiving the third booster dose," he added. 
Go deeper