How the Coronavirus Can Keep Reinfecting Us
It will never stop mutating
This past winter, when the original Omicron variant swept across the country, it launched America into a new COVID-19 era, one in which nearly everyone—95 percent of adults, according to one CDC estimate—has some immunity to the virus through vaccines, infection, or both. Since then, however, Omicron subvariants have still managed to cause big waves of infection. They've accomplished this by eroding our existing immunity.
This will keep happening. "There's not a lot of things I'm confident about in SARS-CoV-2 evolution, but I think I'm extremely confident we'll keep seeing new variants that are progressively eroding antibody neutralization," said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Experts are cautiously optimistic that the pace of variant emergence will eventually slow, and for many people, reinfections are already milder and hospitals are not overwhelmed. But as the virus keeps changing, the only real guarantee is that it will be different—and that its changes won't necessarily affect everyone uniformly.
Occasionally, the rabbit might make a dramatic Omicron-like leap and shoot out ahead for a while until our immunity catches up. How often this will happen is difficult to predict. “It probably depends on how much of a black-swan event Omicron was,” said Adam Lauring, a virologist at the University of Michigan. Omicron was so different and so unusual compared with everything that had come before. “Could it happen again? Most people think probably not but... you don’t want to be burned twice.” Whether an Omicron-like event happens every two or 20 or 200 years can mean different trajectories for COVID’s future. But at this point, we have only two and a half years of data to go on, so prognosticate at your own risk.
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