Is Omicron the Charizard of COVID-19?

Evolution is a common theme throughout the pokémon universe, as is the case for COVID-19.

Is Omicron the Charizard of COVID-19?

Evolution is a common theme throughout the pokémon universe, as is the case for COVID-19. We've seen a lot of variants with SARS-CoV-2 including Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. Charizard, the world's favorite pokémon, is the final form of the starter pokémon Charmander. In other words, Charizard is the evolutionary endpoint, the crème de la crème. Might this be the case for the Omicron variant?

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To be clear, Omicron is not the strongest and deadliest form of SARS-CoV-2 and is very different from Charizard in that way. But from an evolutionary perspective, a virus wants to be extremely transmissible and not very deadly. Why? A viral host has to live long enough for the virus to spread to others. If a host were to perish too quickly then the virus can't successfully spread and therefore fails to stake its claim on humanity like the common cold. Omicron is much less deadly than former variants, most notably when compared to Delta. It's also much more contagious and has led to record high cases of COVID-19 in the United States and elsewhere.

Some have started to refer to Omicron as "Omi-cold" thanks to its mild, cold-like presentation in most people. SARS-CoV-2 isn't the first notable coronavirus, and will likely not be the last. In fact, there are 4 common coronaviruses (29E, NL63, OC43, and HKU) that cause illness around the world (CDC). Historically, more than half of common colds are caused by rhinoviruses and coronaviruses (Greenberg S. Semin Respir Crit Care Med 2016).

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Regarding SARS-CoV-2, we have so far been experiencing a true pandemic. But, if Omicron is something of an evolutionary endpoint, then we may be on the cusp of turning this pandemic into an endemic. That's not to say that endemics aren't fatal. Other endemic viruses include HIV and measles which have all caused havoc around the globe. Endemics aren't just reserved for viruses either and can include parasitic and bacterial infections such as malaria and tuberculosis respectively. The difference is that endemics are predictable. With increasing immunity around the world, it's more and more likely that exposure to a new or old variant of SARS-CoV-2 will be more like a typical cold. If one thing is certain, the transmissibility of Omicron is rapidly increasing rates of natural immunity globally. So, just maybe, we're looking at a 5th common coronavirus that will regularly cause colds and illness around the world similar to 29E, NL63, OC43, and HKU.

Endemic does not mean zero deaths. The truth is, humanity will be dealing with SARS-CoV-2 in one way or another for a long time. There may never be a time when there are zero deaths per year. This isn't surprising news and many viruses such as influenza cause deaths every year. The elderly, immunocompromised, and those with comorbidities will continue to be at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19 and pretty much all existing pathogens. That's not going to change, and society will have to remain cognizant of those populations going forward.

Not all experts agree that we are heading towards an endemic, but there are many that do. All scientific conclusions are made with a degree of certainty that is less than 100%. Science is a game of probability and will constantly evolve as new data emerges. It's certainly not impossible for a deadlier variant to emerge similar to Delta, and only time will tell if Omicron is a Charizard or just another Charmeleon.