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Experts hope COVID-19 will evolve to be more like the common cold

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Federal health officials faced criticism from senators over the administration's handling of the pandemic.

Here's Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: We hear conflicting guidance across the board. Most Americans can't make heads or tails of anything coming out of this administration. At times, it doesn't seem like anyone's in charge.

INSKEEP: Dr. Anthony Fauci defended the administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: This is an extraordinary virus, the likes of which we have not seen even close to in well over 100 years. It is a very wily virus.

INSKEEP: Now, as devastating as that virus is now, some infectious disease experts think there could be an eventual benefit to the omicron surge we're in the middle of.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein explains.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When the pandemic began, the Holy Grail was flattening the curve. Well, that didn't pan out. Then there was herd immunity - no such luck there, either. Now the new hope is something called endemicity. That's when the virus is still around but can kind of fade into the background of daily life as it becomes more predictable and maybe less threatening.

ELIZABETH HALLORAN: We will always have COVID-19 with us in some form. But what we're really interested in is that you can get infected and it will be more like a common cold.

STEIN: Elizabeth Halloran studies infectious disease dynamics at the University of Washington.

HALLORAN: And so, yes, the answer is yes. As a lot of people get infected with omicron, this one will get us closer to where we want to be.

STEIN: Because the velocity of the omicron wave overtaking delta and infecting so many people is so utterly breathtaking.

Sally Otto is at the University of British Columbia.

SALLY OTTO: The omicron wave is so spectacularly fast. I'm an evolutionary biologist, and this - omicron is redefining what we call strong selections. I've never seen anything spread as quickly in the natural world.

STEIN: Which means it should quickly blanket the country with a new level of enhanced immunity.

Cecile Viboud is a senior epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health.

CECILE VIBOUD: Every new wave of SARS-CoV-2 variants gets us closer to endemicity because it builds immunity in the population. You know, this is going to get us closer. We're not entirely there yet - but yeah, getting closer.

STEIN: So combined with more and more people getting vaccinated, even if the virus is still around after the omicron wave recedes or comes back on a regular basis, most people won't get very sick from it - like the flu.

And Jeremy Kamil at Louisiana State University says the virus also appears to be changing in ways that could help explain why it appears to be milder.

JEREMY KAMIL: All that immunity out there seems to be sculpting the virus' spike protein to behave a little bit differently. So that is another side of this coin that is starting to make the virus look a little bit more endemic.

STEIN: Now, this might make some people think, well, sounds like I'm going to get it, and it could boost my immunity without a lot of risk, so why not just get it over with? But Kamil and others say, don't even think about it. Get vaccinated and boosted. Even if omicron's milder, it still can be really nasty - even deadly. And don't forget about long COVID. Omicron's going to inflict enough carnage. And many scientists caution it's way too early to conclude with any certainty that we'll be on the right road after omicron.

Michael Worobey studies evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona.

MICHAEL WOROBEY: I want to actually get away from any kind of narrative that omicron is some sort of silver lining. It's irresponsible to suggest that there's some sort of preordained progression of viruses like this toward becoming benign.

STEIN: The next variant could just as easily be nastier and even better at outsmarting our immune systems. And any immunity we get from omicron could fade.

And Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia says, just because something is endemic doesn't always mean it's easier to live with.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: It's very difficult to say, well, it's going to settle into a seasonal pattern, be much milder, and we're not going to have to worry about it; we'll be able to get back to our lives. I would love that. That would be great. But I just don't know if it will happen.

STEIN: So in the meantime, says Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage, the country needs to double down and do everything possible to blunt the damage as omicron tears across the nation.

WILLIAM HANAGE: I do strongly suspect that we will see a transformed world once omicron has come through. But omicron is just - you know, the house is on fire. Let's put the fire out.

STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.