Get ready to learn more Greek letters. Scientists warn that omicron’s whirlwind advances practically guarantee that it will not be the latest version of the coronavirus to worry 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 patchwork of immunity to vaccines and previous disease.
That means more people with whom the virus can further evolve. Experts do not know what the following variants will look like or how they may form the pandemic, but they say there is no guarantee that the pursuits of omicron will cause milder disease or that existing vaccines will work against them.
They are now applying for broader vaccination while the shots of today still work.
“The faster omicron spreads, the more chances there are for mutation, which may lead to more variations,” said Leonardo Martinez, an epidemiologist at Infectious Diseases at Boston University.
Since its inception in mid-November, omicron has raced around the world like wildfire through dry grass. Research shows that the variant is at least twice as contagious as delta and at least four times as contagious as the original version of the virus.
Omicron is more likely than Delta to re-infect individuals who previously had COVID-19 and to cause “breakthrough infections” in infected people while also attacking the non-vaccinated. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases for the week of January 3-9, an increase of 55% from the previous week.
Along with keeping relatively healthy people out of work and school, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the chance that the virus will infect and persist in people with weakened immune systems – giving it more time to develop potent mutations.
“It’s the longer, persistent infections that seem to be the most likely breeding grounds for new varieties,” said Drs. Stuart Campbell Ray, an expert in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. “It is only when you have a very widespread infection that you will have the opportunity to prevent it.”
Because omicron seems to cause less serious illness than delta, its behavior has raised hopes that it may be the beginning of a trend that will eventually make the virus milder than a common cold.
It is a possibility, experts say, given that viruses do not spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses do not always become less deadly over time.
A variant could also achieve its main purpose – replication – when infected people initially develop mild symptoms, the virus spreads through interaction with others, and later becomes very ill, Ray explained as an example.
“People have been wondering if the virus will evolve into mildness. But there is no particular reason to do so,” he said. “I do not think we can be sure that the virus will become less deadly over time.”
Gradually getting better at escaping immunity helps a virus to survive in the long run. When SARS-CoV-2 first struck, no one was immune. But infections and vaccines have at least given some immunity to a large part of the world, so the virus needs to adapt.
There are many possible paths to evolution. Animals may incubate and release new varieties. Pet dogs and cats, hearts and farm-raised mink are just a few of the animals vulnerable to the virus, which may mutate within them and jump back to humans.
Another potential route: with both omicron and delta circulating, humans could get dual infections that could lead to what Ray calls “Frankenvariants,” hybrids with traits of both species.
As new variants develop, scientists say it is still very difficult to know of genetic traits that may be declining. Omicron, for example, has far more mutations than previous variants, about 30 in the spike protein that it attaches to human cells. But the so-called IHU variant identified in France and controlled by the WHO has 46 mutations and does not appear to have spread much.
To limit the emergence of variants, scientists emphasize continuing with public health measures such as masking and vaccination. While omicron is better able to escape immunity than delta, experts said, vaccines still provide protection and boostershots greatly reduce serious illness, hospitalization and deaths.
Anne Thomas, a 64-year-old IT analyst in Westerly, Rhode Island, said she is fully vaccinated and encouraged and also tries to stay safe by staying mostly at home, while her state is one of the highest COVID-19- has case numbers in the US
“I have no doubt that these viruses will continue to mutate and we will keep busy here for a very long time,” she said.
Ray compared faxes to weapons for humanity that hinder viral spread a lot, even if it does not stop it completely. For a virus that spreads exponentially, he said, “anything that restricts transmission can have a big effect.” Also, when vaccinated people get sick, Ray said their disease is usually milder and disappears faster, leaving less time to spawn dangerous varieties.
Experts say the virus will not become endemic like the flu as long as global vaccination rates are so low. At a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting people from future variants – including those that may be fully resistant to today’s shots – depends on ending global fax 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 states where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. And in the United States, many people continue to oppose available faxes.
“These enormous non-vaccinated places in the US, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere are basically variant factories,” said Drs. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “It has been a colossal failure in global leadership that we can not do this.”
In the meantime, new variants are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute of Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
With so many non-vaccinated people, he said, “the virus is still a kind of control over what happens.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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