scorecard2 leading disease modelers predict low COVID rates this summer — but we may need new vaccines by fall
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2 leading disease modelers predict low COVID rates this summer — but we may need new vaccines by fall

Hilary Brueck   

2 leading disease modelers predict low COVID rates this summer — but we may need new vaccines by fall
LifeScience3 min read
A skater in Campo das Cebolas square on April 1, 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal.    Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images
  • Modelers suspect "we are peaking at about 80% protection right now against Omicron" in the US.
  • 2 leading experts who often resist making strong predictions say they are fairly confident we will have a peaceful summer, COVID-wise.

After more than two years of nonstop COVID surprises, experts are understandably wary to make any sweeping predictions about exactly what will happen next. But two of the smartest infectious disease modelers in the US are suggesting that maybe — just maybe — we might catch a decent break from COVID this summer.

Dr. Chris Murray, who directs the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told experts at a US Food and Drug Administration vaccines meeting on Wednesday that there may be "not much impact" of BA.2 on Americans this spring and summer, as many have feared.

In the US, he said, "we are peaking at about 80% protection right now against Omicron."

His prediction is propped up by the fact that scientists believe there is good cross-protection from earlier Omicron infections toward the currently dominating BA.2 Omicron subvariant. "We're at the tail end of the global Omicron wave, with the exception of China," Murray said.

Combine the immunity from earlier Omicron infections with immunity from other variants, as well as vaccines and boosters, and you have a strong immunity soup cooking in the US, for now at least.

Another top virus modeler, Trevor Bedford, the "genius" computational virologist from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, agreed that the US looks set for a stable summer.

Speaking at the FDA meeting this week, Bedford said "we should be planning for" BA.2 to be the biggest thorn in our side over the next 12 months, with the variant becoming nimbler and more transmissible as it evolves — but that's not necessarily a terrible thing, since our collective immunity against BA.2 is strong. (The IHME, where Murray works, predicts that once the BA.2 wave is complete worldwide, about 60% of the globe will have been infected with some kind of Omicron, which means the COVID immunity of the globe will be at its most robust yet.)

"Upper airway exposures that cause very mild or no disease will boost the responses, and keep you immune," Dr. Barney Graham, one of the co-inventors of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health, told Insider previously.

Murray won't totally rule out the idea that the country could see many more COVID infections in the coming weeks. It's still possible the US could experience a big uptick in cases in the coming month as the UK has, or even a jump in deaths, as Denmark and Hong Kong recently experienced. But it's also conceivable that the US's BA.2 wave will be a smaller blip, like Spain's or South Africa's.

We can't predict when a new variant might hit, but we are better prepared for it than we've ever been before

chart showing 2 possibilities for the future: one in which BA.2 continues to evolve, another in which a wildly divergent variant pops up
FDA VRBPAC April 6, 2022

One key question modelers don't have good answers for is whether, and when, we might some day see a completely new variant, or a "reversion back to higher severity variants," like Delta, Murray said.

If a new variant were to emerge this summer, there's a possibility for more large outbreaks, and lots of fatality.

However, we're in a different place now than we were when Delta emerged last year. Antiviral drugs that are available now could keep more people alive, compared to previous waves. Pharmaceutical companies are also discussing the need for a more comprehensive multivalent vaccine that could target various mutations at the same time.

And, with time, we may get a better handle on how to model the virus's next moves.

Ideally, "if SARS-CoV-2's future becomes more predictable, then we'll be able to anticipate mutations and prepare," infectious disease expert Katelyn Jetelina said in her newsletter on Friday.

After all, "it's only been two years," which is a true blink in the eye of a virus's evolution. It's possible that this virus will simply continue evolving from BA.2 Omicron, and taking on more "flu-like drift" at this point, she said.

Whatever happens next, whether viral evolution continues to be driven by BA.2 or not, most experts expect COVID cases could tick back up again in the fall, as people move indoors, and Omicron immunity wanes. At that point, even if we sail through a peaceful summer, we will likely return to the same question: is it time for more boosters?