Ever since the pandemic started, every few months, new variants of concern have emerged, proving that COVID-19 is continuously evolving.
Some of them have been quite a bit easier to transmit from person to person than others which is why they have spread more, managing to become the dominant variant, affecting most COVID patients.
This ability is associated with the virus’ spike protein, which is what helps it bind to the ACE2 receptors that can be found on the surface of our cells.
This way, the virus is able to attach better and start replicating inside our bodies, becoming even stronger and more dangerous as time goes on.
Through this repeated process, the alpha and the delta variants emerged, the latter becoming dominant globally in the end.
With that being said, scientists believe the same thing will end up happening with the newest variant – Omicron.
However, the good news is that the virus cannot improve indefinitely.
Biochemistry suggests that at some point, the virus will reach a state where the spike protein will have evolved to its strongest form.
At that point, the virus’ ability to transmit from person to person will no longer be limited to its ability to grab onto the outside of our cells.
Instead, other factors such as how fast the genome can replicate, how much virus an infected person can shed and how quickly the virus can enter the cell via the TMPRSS2 protein will also limit the spread capabilities of SARS-CoV-2.
In theory, all of these abilities will reach a peak of evolution and will no longer be able to further replicate and evolve as to give birth to new variants.
So is Omicron the peak of COVID or not?
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that can prove that to be the case as of yet.
The “gain-of-function” studies, which focus on the types of mutations the virus needs in order to spread more efficiently have already found many mutations that can improve the spike protein’s ability to grab onto cells that Omicron does not have.
Furthermore, improvements can be made not only to the spike protein but also to other parts of the virus’ life cycle such as genome replication.
In other words, no matter how concerning this new variant may be, it’s nothing but the latest out of a chain of variants that will most likely appear in the near future.
At the same time, it’s plausible that SARS-CoV-2 cannot pick up all the mutations needed to reach a theoretical maximum since it is not really likely for them to occur all at once.
But even in this scenario, where Omicron is indeed the most transmissible variant, new variants would still appear in order to handle the immune system better.
As you may know, when getting infected by any virus, the human immune system is able to produce antibodies and therefore adapt to the virus, neutralizing it by sticking to it.
Furthermore, killer T-cells also appear to destroy all the already infected cells.
But if the SARS-CoV-2 mutates enough, changing its molecular shape to the point that a patient’s immune system is no longer able to recognize it, it might manage to ultimately evade it completely.
This is the reason why Omicron is believed to be so efficient at infecting people with good immunity such as those who are vaccinated or had COVID before and have developed natural antibodies to it.
The mutations that let the protein spike bind to ACE2 more strongly are also the same ones that reduce the antibodies’ ability to bind onto the virus and destroy it.
According to Pfizer’s data, T-cells are expected to respond in a similar way to Omicron as to other variants, a theory supported by observations done in South Africa where most citizens have been immunized.
Furthermore, previous exposure to the virus still seems to protect people against severe reinfection and death but that is more of a compromise as it allows the virus to continue replicating and reinfecting.
While the future of this virus is yet to be discovered, we should not panic as even though it could reach its maximum capabilities by replicating and evolving, there is no reason to believe that the immune system won’t still be able to neutralize it in the end.
After all, all the mutations that seem to improve COVID’s transmissibility do not also greatly increase the death numbers.
Instead, this future final variant would be a result of random mutations that would have changed the virus enough over time to be unrecognizable to the immune system and cause reinfection waves.
This might mean that we would end up with a so-called “COVID season” just as we currently deal with the flu season every winter.
After all, influenza viruses also have a very similar mutation pattern over time, known as “antigenic drift” that influences reinfections.
The new flu viruses that emerge every year are different enough from others before them but not necessarily more dangerous.
Some living proof is the 229E, a coronavirus that causes the common cold, which already does this so why not COVID?
Ultimately, this might mean that, while Omicron may not be the last variant to emerge, it could very well be the last variant of concern!
The best case scenario at this point would mean SARS-CoV-2 turning into an endemic virus that just slowly mutates over time while remaining under control, just like the flu!
The illness would most likely be rather mild at that point as any past infections would create at least a level of immunity that would help avoid hospitalizations and death in most cases.
This way, most people would get infected with COVID during childhood for the first time, likely before being able to get vaccinated, developing some immunity and causing other future infections to barely be noticed.
In the background, a small group of scientists would continue to monitor the virus’ genetic transformation over time just for the sake of science, variants of concern no longer appearing, however.
At that point, the pandemic as we know it now, would be a thing of the past – at least until another virus would manage to jump the species barrier and infect humans all over the world again.