With both Omicron and Delta circulating, people could contract double infections that could generate “Frankenvariants”, hybrids with characteristics of both types.
Get ready to learn more Greek letters. Scientists warn that Omicron’s whirlwind advance virtually guarantees that it won’t be the latest version of the coronavirus that worries the world.
Each infection offers a chance for the virus to mutate, and Omicron has an advantage over its predecessors: it spreads much faster despite emerging on a planet with a stronger mosaic of immunity from previous vaccines and diseases.
This means more people where the virus can evolve further. Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they could shape the pandemic, but they say there is no guarantee that Omicron’s sequels will cause milder illnesses or that existing vaccines will work against them.
This is why they are now urging wider vaccination, while today’s shots still work.
“The faster Omicron spreads, the greater the mutation opportunities, potentially leading to more variants,” said Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University.
Since it emerged in mid-November, Omicron has raced around the world like fire through dry grass. Research shows that the variant is at least twice as contagious as Delta and at least four times more contagious than the original version of the virus.
Omicron is more likely than Delta to reinfect people who previously had Covid-19 and to cause “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated people by attacking even the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new cases of Covid-19 in the week of January 3-9, a 55% increase from the previous week.
In addition to keeping people relatively healthy out of work and school, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the chances that the virus will infect and remain within people with weakened immune systems, giving them more time to develop powerful mutations.
“It is the longer, more persistent infections that appear to be the most likely breeding ground for new variants,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It is only when you have a widespread infection that you will provide the opportunity for this to happen.”
Since Omicron appears to cause less severe disease than Delta, its behavior has sparked hope that it could be the beginning of a trend that ultimately makes the virus as mild as a common cold.
That’s a possibility, experts say, as viruses don’t spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses don’t always get less lethal over time.
A variant could also achieve its main goal – replication – if infected people initially developed mild symptoms, spread the virus by interacting with others, then became seriously ill later, Ray explained as an example.
“People have wondered if the virus will evolve towards mildness. But there is no particular reason for it, “he said.” I don’t think we can be sure that the virus will become less lethal over time. “
Progressively improving the evasion of immunity helps a virus to survive in the long term. When SARS-CoV-2 first struck, no one was immune. But infections and vaccines have conferred at least some immunity to much of the world, so the virus must adapt.
There are many possible avenues for evolution. Animals could potentially incubate and release new variants. Dogs and cats, deer and farm-raised mink are just some of the animals vulnerable to the virus, which can potentially mutate within them and return to people.
Another potential avenue: With both Omicron and Delta circulating, people could contract double infections that could generate what Ray calls “Frankenvariants,” hybrids with characteristics of both types.
As new variants develop, the scientists said it is still very difficult to know from the genetic characteristics which ones might take off. For example, Omicron has many more mutations than previous variants, around 30 in the spike protein that allows it to attach to human cells. But the so-called IHU variant identified in France and monitored by the WHO has 46 mutations and does not appear to have spread much.
To curb the emergence of variants, the scientists stress to continue with public health measures such as masking and vaccination. While omicron is better able to evade immunity than the delta, experts said, vaccines still offer protection and booster shots greatly reduce serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
Anne Thomas, a 64-year-old IT analyst in Westerly, Rhode Island, said she is fully vaccinated and boosted and also tries to stay safe by staying mostly at home while her state has one of Covid-19 case rates. highest in the United States.
“I have no doubt that these viruses will continue to mutate and we will be dealing with this for a long time,” he said.
Ray likened vaccines to armor for humanity that greatly hinders the spread of the virus even if it doesn’t stop it completely. For a virus that spreads exponentially, he said, “anything that holds back transmission can have a big effect.” Additionally, when vaccinated people get sick, Ray said their disease is generally milder and resolves more quickly, leaving less time to generate dangerous variants.
Experts say the virus will not become as endemic as the flu as long as global vaccination rates are so low. At a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said protecting people from future variants, including those that may be completely resistant to today’s strokes, hinges on ending global vaccine inequality.
Tedros said he would like to see 70% of people in each country vaccinated by the middle of the year. Currently, there are dozens of countries where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University. And in the United States, many people continue to resist the available vaccines.
“These huge unvaccinated areas in the United States, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere are basically variant factories,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “It was a colossal failure in global leadership that we haven’t been able to do it.”
Meanwhile, new variants are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
With so many unvaccinated people, he said, “the virus is still in control of what’s going on.”