Once the current surge abates, countries can expect to see "far fewer cases" through the rest of 2022, Gates wrote on Tuesday during a Twitter Q&A with Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. Once that happens, Gates continued, Covid can most likely "be treated more like seasonal flu."
The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist — an outspoken public health advocate who regularly weighs in on the Covid pandemic response — isn't the first to make similar predictions. Some experts say omicron's rapid spread, while certainly dangerous, could imbue enough people with so-called "natural immunity" to help steer the Covid pandemic into a much less severe "endemic" phase.
Gates touched on that scenario in his Twitter Q&A, predicting that "omicron will create a lot of immunity, at least for the next year." The timing matters: If enough of the country can maintain some level of simultaneous immunity against Covid, whether vaccine-induced or otherwise, the virus' circulation could slow down long enough to transition the pandemic into that endemic phase.
Once Covid eventually becomes endemic, Gates added, "we may have to take yearly shots for Covid for some time" — much like annual flu shots.
The U.S. reported a record 1.5 million new Covid cases on Monday, while also posting a new record for hospitalizations. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's top medical advisor, has projected that the current wave of omicron cases will peak in the U.S. by the end of January. And last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it expects a "precipitous decline" in cases once omicron passes.
Omicron is still likely to wreak havoc on the U.S. health care system between now and then. In his online conversation with Sridhar, Gates noted that until omicron recedes, unvaccinated people will continue to experience "the most severe cases" of Covid. He also predicted that health systems across the world will continue to be "challenged" by omicron's extremely high transmissibility.
Gates' relatively optimistic outlook could also be dashed by a new Covid variant emerging on omicron's heels, especially if it's more severe or transmissible than any other variant to date. The billionaire wrote that the scenario is perhaps improbable — but certainly not impossible.
"A more transmissive variant is not likely," Gates said on Twitter, "but we have been surprised a lot during this pandemic."