By BRENDA GOODMAN and BETSY KLEIN
In March, the White House reached out to about a dozen COVID-19 experts who are closely following the evolution of the coronavirus to ask a simple question: What did they think were the chances of the world seeing a highly mutated variant, akin to Omicron, within the next two years?
The experts came up with a surprisingly narrow range of probabilities, between 5% and 30%, according to Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. He said the data was shared with him on the phone after he gave his own estimate of 15% to 20%.
Most believed that the odds would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% to 20%.
Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told CNN that he was one of those experts.
He was approached by Dr. Ashish Jha, the COVID-19 response coordinator for the White House, for “just a informal phone conversation about my thoughts about immunity and variants and the chance of new variants emerging. It was not an official consultation meeting, as far as I could tell. It really was more of just a informal discussion amongst colleagues, I think,” Barouch said.
“I said that there is a chance that there will be a new variant that is a fundamental shift, kind of like Delta to Omicron was. I thought that that was–it was not an infinitesimal chance, but it also is not an 80% chance,”
Jha pressed him to give a number, and Barouch told him, “My gut feeling is that it’ll be in the 20% range.”
Barouch said he was pleasantly surprised to find out that most of the other experts have put the chances around there, too.
One, Dr. Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, did some very simple modeling based on the fact that there’s been one Omicron-level shift in the virus in about 3½ years of transmission. That happened in November 2021, when the Omicron variant was first detected in the US.
Carrying that forward in time, he estimated that the risk of another such event within the next two years was higher, about 40% between now and May 4, 2025, he told CNN.
“40% feels intuitively high. The main reason that 40% number could be off is if in today’s world Omicron-like events are now much less likely than in the world of 2020-2021. However, I don’t see an obvious reason for this to be the case,” Bedford wrote in an email, noting that scientists are tracking highly mutated cryptic lineages in people who have been infected for long periods of time.
The calls to experts came as the Biden administration prepared for the end of the public health emergency for COVID-19, which is set for Thursday.
The White House’s effort to collect these expert estimates was first reported Friday by The Washington Post.
The end of the U.S. emergency will come with a host of changes to how the government tracks the pandemic, with data collection becoming less frequent in most cases and less granular. Labs will no longer have to submit testing data to the government. Reporting of cases by states will also become discretionary.
Topol said he thinks the dismantling of data systems is a mistake, given the consensus that another highly disruptive variant could be on the way within a few years.
“I wish there wouldn’t be as much letdown, because this is on the horizon, is a real risk,” he said.
Topol said he’s also concerned by recent congressional efforts to reclaim funds that have been dedicated to coronavirus response, which some estimate could be as much as $50 billion.
About $5 billion of that unspent money has been allocated to developing the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines, which Topol said are needed now more than ever to defend against an Omicron-level event.
“This is why it’s so essential we get these next-generation vaccines, the nasal vaccines, the pan-coronavirus universal vaccines, the monoclonal antibodies that work against all versions of this virus,” Topol said.
CNN has reached out to the White House for comment. An official said efforts to respond to COVID-19 will continue but in a different form after the public health emergency ends.
“As we transition out of the emergency phase of COVID, the White House is standing up the Office of Pandemic Preparedness Response as required by law,” the official said.
“OPPR will work with HHS and other agencies on continued COVID response work — including prep for future surges, as well as be the lead [Executive Office of the President] division for future pandemic preparedness.”
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