Pandemic's surprises make scientists wary of predictions

Omicron's swift emergence is just one of the curveballs the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown scientists. Now, scientists tread especially carefully when making predictions on the pandemic's future trajectory, NBC News reported Jan. 30. 

When the delta variant became dominant in July, researchers and health officials anticipated the next variant to catch up or take over would be related to delta. 

"So many people thought the next big variant would be a sublineage of delta and suddenly we have omicron, which has all these mutations and then it took off," Pavitra Roychoudhury, PhD, a computational biologist at UW Medicine in Seattle, told NBC. "The next question is: Where does it go from here?"

In the summer of 2021, the public was largely expecting to turn the corner on the pandemic, with July 4 touted as the day Americans would take back their independence from the virus. Since then, variants have proved to be a wild card. Armed with those lessons, researchers are ever more cautious when attempting to answer that "next question" Dr. Roychoudhury proposed. 

"I have just been so humbled and surprised by these variants of concern and the number of unanswered questions we have about them, where they came from, why they arise," Joshua Schiffer, MD, virologist and mathematical modeler at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told NBC. 

It's true omicron dominates the coronavirus landscape in the U.S. right now, making it easy to assume that delta's time is done, though experts warn it's still too early to make that determination. A number of scenarios that vary "between rosy and gloomy" are still possible, John Moore, PhD, a virologist and professor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, told the news outlet. 

One thing that's near certain: "Omicron will not be the last variant that you will hear us talking about," Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, said Jan. 25. "The next variant of concern will be more fit, and what we mean by that is it will be more transmissible, because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating." 

The larger question that remains now is whether future variants will cause more or less disease severity, WHO officials said.


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