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Worried about new COVID variants?  Here’s what to expect.


Whenever a new variant of COVID-19 is identified, fear and panic quickly set in. It makes sense: we have been living through a brutal and frightening pandemic for more than two years. Before the data arrives, many headlines immediately jump to the worst-case scenario, speculating on whether the new coronavirus variant will be more pathogenic or drastically evade our vaccines. We are constantly on high alert.

The sad truth is that when it comes to COVID, there will always be new variations. At the moment, we are experiencing a slight increase in BA.2. Experts discovered another possible strain this week, the XE variant, which is a combination of the original omicron variant and BA.2. And in a few months, we’ll probably be looking at an even newer one. We have to expect it and prepare for it.

A new variant does not necessarily mean that there will be an apocalyptic situation. We are correct effective treatments now. We have mitigation strategies that we know work, like masking. There is a decent level of immunity in the population – against vaccines and generalized infection – that should be many for a new variant to make up for all the progress we’ve made over the past two years.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be cautious, but rather that we should use what we’ve learned and created over the past couple of years to our advantage (and those responsible for creating public health strategies should do so). the same).

Here’s what to watch and consider whenever a new variant pops up:

Expect new variants in the future

As long as SARS-CoV-2 continues to circulate, it will evolve and mutate into new variants. We now know that there is many animals who can contract the coronavirus. Add to that the fact that many people have never been vaccinated or exposed to COVID and that vaccinated people can spread COVID, and it seems fairly unlikely that COVID will be eradicated, at least anytime soon.

The World Health Organization released a new plan last week suggesting that we are moving out of the emergency phase of the pandemic and preparing for three possible scenarios of how the virus could evolve next.

Scenario 1: COVID continues to circulate and evolve, but disease severity will decrease as immunity increases. The virus will likely become more of a seasonal disease (like the flu) and we may need to stimulate those at risk on a seasonal basis.

Scenario two: At best, future variants are much milder and eliminate the need for reminders – even though we may get sick intermittently, we’re still protected against serious illnesses.

Scenario three: A more serious and more transmissible variant presents itself. We already have a ton of immunity in the population, which will probably lessen the impact of the virus, but a widespread booster campaign, probably with updated vaccines, would be launched to increase everyone’s immunity to this variant.

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What to consider when a new variant appears

When Monica Gandhiinfectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, hears about a new variant, she first examines the hospitalization rate in the region where it is spreading to see if and how it is increasing. In areas of high vaccination, cases are is no longer a completely accurate indicator of the severity of a wave – as immunity increased, hospitalizations became significantly decoupled from cases, Gandhi said. Keep in mind that home COVID test results are often not recorded by health departments, making it difficult to determine the true number of cases – and therefore hospitalization rate – in a given community.

The vast majority of breakthrough infections do not lead to hospitalization, and infectious disease experts expect our immunity to continue to protect us against serious disease, even with other variants. For those at risk, rising case numbers may indicate it’s time for a booster or high-quality mask. For those not at high risk, wearing a mask in public spaces and around someone you know is immunocompromised is an easy way to reduce transmission — even if mandates aren’t. in effect, you are always in control of prevention.

Benjamin Neumanprofessor of biology and chief virologist at Texas A&M University, says that when it comes to variants, the severity of COVID is mostly related to what’s going on inside the person, rather than the variant it -same.

Look at omicron. “In many countries with high vaccination rates or high previous incidence of infection, omicron was relatively mild, most likely because there was sufficient immunity to vaccination or surviving COVID,” said Neumann.

In Hong Kong, however, vaccination rates have been low and the strict public health restrictions have been effective, meaning there is less natural immunity in the population. As a result, omicron was very harsh. We observed a similar phenomenon when delta wave – areas with high vaccination rates had low hospitalizations and areas with low vaccination rates had an increase in hospitalizations.

Long story short: Considering the immunity of the region experiencing an increase in a new variant—both from vaccination and from natural infection—is crucial to determining whether a variant is truly more pathogenic.

Another thing to consider is that all of the variants we’ve seen so far – despite the fact that they’ve mutated and become more transmissible – are overall still quite similar to each other.

“Scientists like to track variants because it shows how the virus evolves, but the furthest BA.2 variant is still about 99.7% identical to the original 2019 virus,” Neuman said.

Poliomyelitis, for example, has three main variants, all of which are about 80% identical to each other. “We can still do a reasonable job of vaccinating against all three variants with one vaccine,” Neuman said, adding that the biggest difference between most SARS-CoV-2 variants, in practical terms, is often the name. .

What would set off alarm bells with a new COVID variant

It would take a variant with lots of new mutations to drastically alter the current landscape.

Gandhi said a red flag would be raised for her if suddenly there was an increase in the number of young people and vaccinated people hospitalized with COVID. She would also be concerned if the symptoms changed.

“Right now it’s a pretty predictable course and we know how to treat COVID in the hospital,” Gandhi said. But if COVID began to impact various organ systems differently, that would suggest that a new variant has taken over some concerning traits.

According to Neuman, the next generation of variants is likely to come from the omicron and BA.2, since that is what is circulating. Even if the third scenario mapped out by the WHO unfolds, the situation would not be unassailable, Neuman said.

“It’s likely that a combination of more doses and omicron-like vaccines will be needed to protect people, at least in the short term,” Neuman said.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but advice may change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most recent recommendations.



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