There are still several letters of the Greek alphabet left that have not been used to name COVID variants, and scientists say we could wind up using all or most of them before the pandemic is over!
Every infection provides a chance for the virus to mutate, and scientists warn that omicron’s whirlwind advance practically ensures it won’t be the last version of the coronavirus for us to worry about.
Each successful variant gives the COVID virus a chance to mutate further. And omicron has an edge over its predecessors: in that, it spreads way faster despite attacking a population with a stronger patchwork of immunity from vaccines and prior illness.
Though it results in milder sickness, the high transmissibility of omicron means more people in whom the virus can further evolve. Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic, but they say there’s no guarantee the sequels to omicron will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them.
A sobering thought for a COVID-weary populace.
However, even though there is no telling how effective current vaccines could be against new variants, scientists are urging more folks to get vaccinated to cut off the virus from a source of hosts to support further -potentially more dangerous -mutations.
“The faster omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,” Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, said.
Since it emerged in mid-November, omicron has raced across the globe like fire through dry grass. Research shows 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 reinfect individuals who previously had COVID-19 and to cause “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated people while also attacking the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases for the week of Jan. 3-9, a 55% increase from the previous week.
Along with keeping comparatively healthy people out of work and school, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the odds the virus will infect and linger inside 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 variants,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s only when you have very widespread infection that you’re going to provide the opportunity for that to occur.”
Because omicron appears to cause less severe disease than delta, its behavior has kindled hope that it could be the start of a trend that eventually makes the virus milder, like a common cold.
It’s a possibility, experts say, given that viruses don’t spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses don’t always get less deadly over time.
A variant could also achieve its main goal – replicating – if infected people developed mild symptoms initially, spread the virus by interacting with others, then got very sick later, Ray explained by way of example.
“People have wondered whether the virus will evolve to mildness. But there’s no particular reason for it to do so,” he said. “I don’t think we can be confident that the virus will become less lethal over time.”
To curb the emergence of variants, scientists stress continuing with public health measures such as masking and getting vaccinated. While omicron is better able to evade immunity than delta, experts said, vaccines still offer 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 boosted and also tries to stay safe by mostly staying home while her state has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the U.S.
“I have no doubt at all that these viruses are going to continue to mutate, and we’re going to be dealing with this for a very long time,” she said.