How Omicron highlights fading hope of herd immunity

As Omicron spread quickly across the globe, some experts had hoped there could be a silver lining – that it would help finally deliver the promise of herd immunity against Covid-19.

But herd immunity – in which enough people become immune to a virus through vaccination or infection – won’t come with Omicron, experts now say, as the variant has proven even better than its predecessors at infecting people who were vaccinated or had a prior infection.

“A really unanticipated challenge I think is how quickly the virus has mutated in ways that are relevant for the immune system.”

Erin Mordecai is an Associate Professor of Biology at Stanford University.

“We thought it could have been possible in the longer term, but I think most people didn't expect, most scientists didn't expect to see those immune evading variants arising so quickly."

Experts say Omicron has provided further evidence that the coronavirus will continue to find ways to break through our immune defenses.

Dr. David Wohl is an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

“And so that reinfection as well causes us some concerns because it means even if you don't get sick, you can still transmit it to others. And given the way that these viruses are spreading and there's such a sizable population that can get infected and get ill, that's just too concerning for us."

Instead of herd immunity, many experts interviewed by Reuters said there was growing evidence that vaccines and prior infection would still provide the population some level of immunity - making the disease less serious for those who get infected, or reinfected.

ERIN MORDECAI: “And so I think the coronavirus, some form of SARS-CoV-2 is likely to be with us for the long term, but hopefully we'll see outbreaks that are more moderated, that have less hospitalization and death and that are more seasonal and kind of associated with the cold and flu season."

While hope for herd immunity is still hard for many to shake, health experts say there’s a future where COVID, while not eradicated, is more of a manageable challenge and less of a crisis.

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