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COVID-19 Update with Dr. Paul Keim: Omicron and the Future of COVID-19

an artist's illustration of the COVID-10 virus
Centers for Disease Control

COVID-19 case numbers have spiked in Arizona and around the U.S. due to the highly contagious Omicron variant. But there’s now effective drugs and vaccines to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with epidemiologist Dr. Paul Keim about living with COVID-19 in the long term, and the lessons to be learned from another pandemic more than 100 years ago.

What we’re seeing with omicron is that it’s more contagious but it seems to be less severe, is that where we’re at?

Yeah, Omicron is clearly causing less severe disease. When you look at the massive case numbers, we aren’t seeing that massive increase in hospitalizations or deaths. Of course, that’s the good news here…. What drives evolution of viruses is transmissibility…. The severity of the disease is really secondary to that. In the case of the Omicron, we do see super high transmissibility and lower severity of disease, but it didn’t have to be that way… I guess we got lucky in that sense.

For people who get omicron and recover from it, how protected are they from getting coronavirus in the future?

I think we can reasonably expect that at least for 6 months or more, an infection with omicron will provide good protection against a second omicron infection. We know the vaccine companies are rapidly moving to create vaccines that contain the omicron protein, and so I think in the future what we’re going to see is what we call a multivalent vaccine. Everybody sees those multivalent vaccines already for influenza…. The reason we do that is because we don’t know exactly which one of those flu variants is going to take over and be the important one each flu season. It’s clear that we’re entering the same realm with the coronavirus.

It is safe to say COVID-19 is now an endemic disease, we’re always going to have to deal with it in the future?

It’s definitely something we’re going to deal with in the future. Again, influenzas is really a good model for us here….. We think in 1918 the human population on our globe was fully naïve to this virus, where it came from we’re not sure, but it came out of somewhere and hopped into the human population. Just like COVID-19 it spread across the globe very rapidly and it caused very severe disease with very high mortality rates. The subsequent waves of influenza didn’t cause the same level of mortality. It’s not that it doesn’t kill people. In a bad year in the United States, fifty thousand people will die of influenza. That’s a lot. Now we’re looking at COVID-19, we’re seeing a lot more, six-seven hundred thousand people have died in the United States of COVID-19. But in the future what we think will happen is this virus, we will all have some immunity… the death rate will be much, much lower. But we’re still going to have people getting sick for a long time to come with the virus.

Tell me what that future looks like. Is it going to be like with the flu where maybe we get a vaccine every where, are we going to continue to test when we’re feeling ill, what do you think that will look like?

I think in the future we’re going to have more options against COVID than we had in the past against influenza… I think there’s absolutely no doubt with the new vaccine technologies, we’ll going to be able to more rapidly develop vaccines that are customized to the variants that are out there. But on the other hand, we’re also going to see this virus take off and move very fast like we have with Omicron, so we’re going to see these bursts of disease before our vaccine efforts catch up with the new variants…. The question is can we do anything about the next Omicron we see emerging from some bizarre place around the world? What are we going to do about it? That’s the question. Obviously, mobilizing the vaccines, making sure there’s plenty of supplies of the drugs…. Masks are still a very effective stagey. You want to be careful about who you’re around and in what situations…. I think some common sense and public health strategies are going to real important in the future.

Paul Keim, thanks for speaking with me.

Good to see you again.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.