Could the rise of COVID-19 in China lead to the emergence of a variant of the virus? Scientists aren’t sure, but they are concerned about the possibility. They claim it will be similar to the Omicron variant already out there, or a combination of types, or something else entirely.
“China has a large population and limited immunity. And it looks like the conditions are ripe for a new type to emerge, said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
Each new infection provides an opportunity for the virus to mutate, and the disease is spreading rapidly across China. The country of 1.4 billion people has already abandoned its “zero COVID” policy.
While vaccination rates are generally high, booster shots are not so high, especially among the elderly. Nationally produced vaccines are less effective than Western RNA-type vaccines. And many vaccines were given a year ago, meaning immunity has waned.
Result? A favorable area for the virus to mutate.
“When we see high infection rates, it’s usually after the emergence of a new variant,” Ray said.
About three years ago, the original version of the virus left China and spread to the rest of the world. Then came the Delta Variant, and then Omicron and its progeny, who still plague the world today.
Dr. Shan-Lu Liu, who studies the virus at Ohio State University, said several Omicron variants have been detected in China, including BF.7, which is highly efficient at evading immunity and triggering new waves of infection. Used to be.
Experts agree that particularly vulnerable populations, such as China’s, could lead the virus to mutate. Ray compared the virus to a boxer who “learns to avoid the punches you throw and adapts to move around them.”
A big unknown is whether the new variant will cause more severe symptoms. Experts agree that there is no reason to think that the virus is getting milder over time.
“For the most part, the mildness of symptoms over the past six to 12 months in many parts of the world is due to immunity acquired from vaccines or infection, not because the virus has changed,” Ray said.
In China, the majority of the population has never been exposed to the coronavirus. Chinese vaccines are based on older technology that produces fewer antibodies than Western ones.
Given this reality, it will be necessary to see whether the virus follows the same pattern of evolution in China as it emerged in other parts of the world following the application of vaccines, commented Dr. Gagandeep Kang, virus researcher at Christian Medical. College in Vellore, India.
“Or the possibility that the evolutionary path is completely different,” he said.
Correspondents Olivia Zhang and Dek Kang contributed to this story from Beijing.
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