Omicron, the new variant of the virus Sars-CoV-2, has something in common with another pandemic that had hit the world almost 100 years ago.
Spanish Flu had broken out in 1918 and infected around 35% of the world population before becoming endemic by 1920. Between 1 to 6 per cent of the global population was estimated to die due to the infection.
In India, it started from Bombay, now Mumbai, and spread to the rest of the country causing death to people as high as 2 crores within the span of two years.
Barring a few dissimilarities, Spanish Flu and Coronavirus have a lot in common so far as India is concerned. Based on these commonalities, expert predicts that Coronavirus might become an endemic with the advent of the new variant Omicron.
Both the first two waves, caused by both Coronavirus and Spanish Flu, showed similar infection patter. While the first wave was mild but the second wave was huge and deadly.
After two waves, the virus of the Spanish flu mutated and become so mild that people who were infected, only showed symptoms like the common cold. Hence, the third wave was milder than the second one and didn’t cause much damage. There was no fourth wave in India after that.
Medical experts say that the currently available evidence tends to show that Omicron might turn out to be a variant that will bring this pandemic to an end.
Dr Sandeep Budhiraja, Group Medical Director of Max Healthcare & Senior Director, Institute of Internal Medicine, says that the pattern of mutation in the virus is somewhat similar to the viral disease Spanish flu. He says that the Spanish Flu’s severity had moderated within two years of its emergence and finally it disappeared.
“The two main differences are that we didn’t have the vaccine at that time and now we have the vaccine and there was no international travel at this extent that now we have so there is too much of a population intermixing with each other. Otherwise, the way virus is behaving this time and the way virus behaved 100 years back is more or less similar,” Dr Budhiraja said.
He added, “We had three waves and the Spanish Flu pandemic lasted for almost two years. Then it started abating and became endemic. This happened due to a muted strain like the Omicron which probably was less virulent and more infectious and that actually ultimately brought the pandemic to an end.”
Dr Budhiraja is of the view that the world can hope for the fag end of the pandemic if Omicron continues to behave like a mild variant.
Gyaneshwar Chaubey, a professor of genetics at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), says that as with the growing time, scientists learn about the trajectory of COID-19, it reminds the history of when we had to manage the Spanish flu during the first world war.
“To face the Covid-19 epidemic we were not in a different situation than Spanish Flu. And this also reflects in mimicking the similar trends in both first and second waves,” Prof Chaubey said.
He added, “Surprisingly, it is not just the synchronisation of SARS-CoV-2 with the Spanish flu pandemic, but an absolute coincidence. Despite the current scientific and technological knowledge, with the introduction of mass vaccination, we are now in a far better position to curb any future waves.”
Dr Sanjay Rai, Professor, Community Medicine in All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, says that the virus mutates to lose its virulence because if it continues to remain deadly, it will die with the person who it infects.
“So it is a natural process and we have seen these phenomena in the evolution of almost all the viruses be it Spanish Flu, Swine Flu and H1N1,” Dr Rai said.
He added, “At present, with the emerging data and global evidence, I can say with confidence that Omicron looks like a mutant that will cause very mild symptoms and help in strengthening the immune system.”