Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Expect more worrisome COVID options after Omicron, scientists say

Get ready to learn more Greek letters. Scientists warn that Omicron’s meteoric rise all but guarantees it won’t be the last version of the coronavirus to plague the world.

Each infection gives the virus a chance to mutate, and the omicron has an advantage over its predecessors: it spreads much faster despite appearing on a planet with a stronger patchwork of immunity from vaccines and previous diseases.

This means more people in which the virus can develop further. Experts don’t know what the next options will look like or how they could affect the pandemic, but they say there’s no guarantee that the effects of omicron will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them.

They are calling for more widespread vaccination now while today’s vaccines still work.

“The faster the omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutations, which could lead to more variants,” said Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University.

People line up at the COVID-19 testing site in Times Square, New York, Monday, December 13, 2021.
People line up at the COVID-19 testing site in Times Square, New York, Monday, December 13, 2021.

Since its introduction in mid-November, the omicron has raced across the world like fire on dry grass. Studies show that this variant is at least twice as infectious as delta and at least four times more infectious than the original version of the virus.

Omicron is more likely than delta to reinfect people who previously had COVID-19 and cause “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated people, as well as attacking the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases in the week of January 3-9, up 55% from the previous week.

While relatively healthy people are unable to work and study, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the likelihood that the virus will infect and persist inside people with weakened immune systems, giving it more time to develop powerful mutations.

“The most likely breeding ground for new variants are longer-lasting, persistent infections,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “Only when you have a very widespread infection are you going to provide an opportunity for that.”

Because omicron appears to cause less severe disease than delta, its behavior has raised hope that it may be the start of a trend that will eventually make the virus milder, like a common cold.

Experts say it’s possible given that viruses don’t spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses don’t always become less deadly over time.

The variant can also achieve its primary goal of replication — if infected people first show mild symptoms, spread the virus by interacting with others, and then become severely ill, Ray explained as an example.

“People wondered if the virus would develop in a mild form. But there is no particular reason for this,” he said. “I don’t think we can be sure that the virus will become less deadly over time.”

Gradually improving immune evasion helps the virus survive in the long run. When SARS-CoV-2 first struck, no one was immune. But infections and vaccines have given at least some immunity to much of the world, so the virus must adapt.

There are many possible directions of evolution. Animals have the potential to incubate and release new variants. Domestic dogs and cats, deer and farm-raised minks are just some of the animals vulnerable to the virus, which could potentially mutate inside them and return to humans.

Another potential route: With both micromicron and delta infection circulating, humans could get a double infection that could produce what Ray calls “Franken variants,” hybrids with characteristics of both types.

When new variants emerge, it’s still very difficult to tell from genetics which ones might take off, scientists say. For example, omicron has many more mutations than previous variants, about 30 in a spike protein that allows it to attach to human cells. But the so-called IHU variant, identified in France and under WHO surveillance, has 46 mutations and does not appear to have spread at all.

To contain the emergence of options, scientists highlight the need to continue public health measures such as wearing masks and vaccinations. Although omicron is better able to evade immunity than delta, the vaccines still provide protection, and booster shots significantly reduce serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths, experts say.

Ann Thomas, a 64-year-old IT analyst from Westerly, Rhode Island, said she is fully vaccinated and boosted and is also trying to stay safe by mostly staying at home while her state has one of the highest rates. incidence of COVID-19 in the United States.

“I have absolutely no doubt that these viruses will continue to mutate and we will be dealing with this for a very long time,” she said.

Ray compared vaccines to humankind’s armor, which greatly hinders the spread of the virus, even if it doesn’t stop it entirely. For a virus that is spreading exponentially, he said, “anything that inhibits transmission can have a big effect.” In addition, when vaccinated people get sick, Ray said their illness tends to be milder and faster, leaving less time for dangerous options to emerge.

Experts say the virus won’t become endemic like the flu while global vaccination rates are this low. During a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting people from future options, including those that could be completely resistant to today’s vaccines, depends on closing the global vaccine disparity.

Tedros said he would like 70% of people in every country to be vaccinated by the middle of the year. Currently, less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated in dozens of countries, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. And in the United States, many people continue to resist available vaccines.

“These huge unvaccinated populations in the US, 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 of global leadership that we failed to do so.”

Meanwhile, new options are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.

With so many unvaccinated people, “the virus still controls what happens,” he said.

The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Nation World News Desk
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