Former FDA chief says Omicron may be the end of Covid as infections and deaths continue to rise

Dr Scott Gottlieb says Omicrcon likely to become dominant strain of coronavirus

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 19 January 2022 00:39 GMT
Former FDA chief says Omicron may signal the end of the 'pandemic phase'

Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former chief of the US Food and Drug Administration, said that the onset of the Omicron variant may be a sign that the pandemic is coming to an end.

During an appearance on CBNC's Squawk Box, Dr Gottlieb said researchers were cautiously optimistic that Omicron will become the dominant strain of the coronavirus.

"We've seen this virus continue to drift and undergo gradual evolution...there is a presumption at some point we are going to have a dominant lineage," he said. "The conventional wisdom right now is it's likely to be Omicron."

That news may be difficult to digest as positive as hospitals are still filled with coronavirus patients and deaths from Covid-19 are expected to rise in coming weeks.

Modelers are predicting that between 50,000 and 300,000 more Americans could die from Covid-19 by the time the latest wave of infections is expected to subside in mid-March.

While the Omicron variant causes milder disease on average, it is more easily transmissible, and means more vulnerable - and unvaccinated - people are likely to become infected. Some of those individuals will die from the disease.

Vaccination remains the best means of protection from the virus, as hospital workers report that the vast majority of those hospitalised and of those who die from the disease are unvaccinated.

However, there is a possible silver lining to Omicron, according to Dr Gottlieb.

"I think the base case is that [Omicron] signals the end of the pandemic phase of this virus. It doesn't signal the elimination of this virus from human circulation, we're going to have to deal with this as a respiratory pathogen."

He said that much of the nation, thanks to vaccinations and infections caused by both the Omicron and Delta variants of the virus, have some immunity to the virus, and that barring something "unprecedented" it seems as though Omicron will remain the dominant variant. However, he did note that many experts believed Delta would be the dominant variant before Omicron arrived.

"The worrisome scenario is that you get something that represents divergent evolution, like Omicron did, where you get something dramatically different than the variants that are circulating right now," he said. "Most people think that's unlikely to happen, but most people felt, including me, that it was unlikely to happen before and that Delta would be the dominant strain, and then Omicron came along."

The doctor noted that coronaviruses tend to "drift" rather than "shift" - that is, they have gradual changes to how the operate and work to circumvent immune systems rather than change dramatically into new viruses with dramatically different means of infection.

He said that it remained to be seen if the virus becomes endemic, but said it was likely that a new wave of inoculations will be necessary in the future as the virus continues to shift and change to circumvent the immune system.

If the virus does become endemic and no further dominant variants arise, it would allow researchers to develop more effective vaccines and treatments for the virus.

However, before that happens, the US will still have to weather another two months of high infection rates and rising deaths related to the virus.

The Los Angeles Times reported that researchers at Pennsylvania State University co-led a project to combine several pandemic models to share with the White House.

Those models found that deaths will likely peak sometime in late January or early February, and that those weekly deaths could equal or exceed the deaths at the Delta variant's peak, potentially surpassing the number of Covid-related deaths in 2021.

While some deaths will be caused by the Delta variant, the overall infection wave will be driven by the Omicron variant.

According to the models, 1.5 million Americans are expected to be hospitalised between mid-December and mid-March. 191,000 are expected to die during that time, with Omicron killing between 58,000 on the low end and up to 305,000 if the models are underestimating the virus's lethality.

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