Get ready to learn more Greek letters. Scientists have warned that Omicron’s whirlwind advance practically ensures that it will not be the last version of the coronavirus to worry the world.
Every infection offers the virus a chance to mutate, and Omicron has an edge over its predecessors: it spreads rapidly despite emerging on a planet with a strong patchwork of vaccines and immunity from prior disease.
This means more people in whom the virus can develop further. Experts don’t know what the next version will look like or how they might shape the pandemic, but they say there’s no guarantee that Omicron’s sequel will cause milder disease or that existing vaccines will work against them.
“The faster the oomicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,” said Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University.
As it emerged in mid-November, O’Micron 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 as infectious as the original version of the virus.
Omicron is more likely than Delta to re-infect individuals who have previously had COVID-19 and causes “breakthrough infection” in vaccinated people, as well as attacks unvaccinated people. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases in the week of January 3-9, a 55% increase from the previous week.
As well as keeping comparatively healthy people out of work and school, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the chances of the virus becoming infected and left inside people with weakened immune systems – allowing it to develop powerful mutations. Gets more time to do it.
“It is the prolonged, persistent infections that appear to be the most likely breeding grounds for the new forms,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s only when you have a very widespread infection that you’re going to be given an opportunity to happen.”
Because Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, its behavior has raised hope that it may be the start of a trend that eventually makes the virus as mild as the common cold.
That’s a possibility, experts say, given that viruses don’t spread well if they kill their hosts too quickly. But viruses don’t always get less deadly over time.
One type can also achieve its main goal — replication — if infected people initially develop mild symptoms, spread the virus by interacting with others, then become very ill later, Ray said by way of example. Explained.
“People have wondered whether the virus will develop into benignity. “But I don’t think we can be sure that the virus will become less lethal over time.”
Getting progressively better at escaping immunity helps the virus survive longer. When SARS-CoV-2 first arrived, no one was immune to it. But infections and vaccines have provided at least some immunity to much of the world, so the virus must adapt.
There are many possible avenues of development. Animals potentially incubate and may be exposed to new forms. Domesticated dogs and cats, deer and farm-raised minks are just a few of the animals most vulnerable to the virus, which can potentially mutate within them and leap back to people.
Another possible route: With both Omicron and Delta circulating, people may have dual infections that Ray calls “frankenvariants”, hybrids with characteristics of both.
When new types are developed, scientists said it is still very difficult to know from genetic characteristics which ones may go on. For example, Omicron has many more mutations than previous variants, about 30 in the spike protein that allows it to bind 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 at all.
To prevent the emergence of the variant, scientists insist on continuing public health measures such as masking and vaccination. While Omicron is better at avoiding immunity than Delta, experts said, vaccines still provide 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’s fully vaccinated and grown and mostly tries to stay safe by staying home, while her state has the highest COVID-19 case rate in the US. .
“I have no doubt that these viruses will continue to mutate and we are going to have to deal with this for a very long time,” she said.
Ray compared vaccines for humanity to armor, which greatly hinders viral spread, even if it cannot stop it completely. For a virus that spreads rapidly, he said, “anything that stops transmission can have a huge impact.” In addition, when vaccinated people do get sick, Ray said their illness is usually mild and recovers more quickly, taking less time for dangerous forms to breed.
Experts say that as long as the global vaccination rate is so low, the virus will not become as endemic as the flu. During a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting people from future variants – including those that may be completely resistant to today’s shots – could reduce global vaccine disparity. depends on the ending.
Tedros said he wants 70% of people in every country to be vaccinated by the middle of the year. There are currently dozens of countries where less than a quarter of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And in the United States, many people continue to oppose available vaccines.
“These huge non-vaccination factories in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere are fundamentally different,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “It’s been a huge failure in global leadership that we haven’t been able to do.”
In the meantime, new variants are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
With so many illiterate people, he said, “the virus is still kind of in control of what’s happening.”