As autumn bleeds into winter, public health officials are anticipating another wave of COVID infections, just like the two years previous — with some experts anticipating as many as 100 million infections this time around.

In spite of evidence to the contrary, President Joseph Biden recently declared that the COVID pandemic is “over,” before walking back those comments. What Biden allegedly meant to say is that we’re not in the same situation we were before, which is mostly true. Compared to the start of the pandemic, we have far more tools to fight COVID than ever before — especially the vaccines, but also antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibodies. And of course, masks still work at preventing infection.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) seems to think these defenses will be enough in the coming months.

“We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said in a September 14th press conference. “We can see the finish line. We are in a winning position but now is the worst time to stop running.”

Of course, all of this optimism could be erased overnight if another brutal COVID variant emerges, not unlike what happened with the delta and omicron variants. In both cases, the loosening of pandemic restrictions turned out to be premature, followed by surges in infections, deaths and the disabling condition known as long COVID.

But whether a new variant will emerge remains an open question. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID, is constantly mutating. Every new infection gives the pathogen new opportunities to evolve evasive maneuvers against vaccines and medications or immunity acquired from past infections.

Right now, the most dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 is BA.5, a lineage of omicron that emerged last April and has made up the majority of cases through late spring and summer. As of September 17, BA.5 was responsible for about 85 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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