Two months after scientists in South Africa alerted the world to the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, the global surge in infections resulting from the variant is finally subsiding.
To be clear, exhausted health-care workers in overcrowded hospitals are still fighting to save lives. But many epidemiologists are beginning to look ahead to a post-Omicron world.
The pandemic experts The Daily Beast spoke to were unanimous. Omicron is not the end. New variants–“lineages” is the scientific term–are coming. Worse, a host of entirely new coronaviruses lurk in animal populations and could make the leap to human beings at any time, seeding a whole new pandemic after or on top of COVID-19.
A new vaccine that works equally well against all lineages of SARS-CoV-2, as well as any future coronavirus, could blunt both. A “pan-coronavirus” vaccine is the holy grail of public health. Dozens of labs all over the world, including several in the U.S., are working overtime to develop one.
Scientists hope universal vaccines will hugely simplify global efforts to end the current pandemic and prevent the next one. Some insist it’s a better approach than trying to tailor vaccines for particular lineages. An Omicron-specific jab, for instance.
“We are going to have to come up with long-term vaccine solutions that don’t necessitate chasing the latest variant,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.
A pan-COVID vaccine gets ahead of the pathogen. Lineage-specific vaccines chase after it. Barton Haynes, an immunologist with Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, called the latter approach “whack-a-mole.” “Wait until something happens, then do something about it.”
The solution, Haynes told The Daily Beast, is “greater uptake of the vaccines we have and good use in the future of the vaccines being developed in the second generation of COVID vaccines–i.e., pan-coronavirus vaccines.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in late 2019, the priority was developing a vaccine for COVID-19. In one of most…