Could the COVID-19 outbreak in China usher in a new coronavirus mutant?
Scientists are unsure, but they are concerned that this could occur. It could be similar to the omicron variants that are currently circulating there. It could be a mixture of strains. Or something completely different, they claim.
“China has a very large population, and immunity is limited. And it appears that this is the environment in which we may witness an explosion of a new variant “Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, agreed.
Every new infection provides an opportunity for the coronavirus to mutate, and the virus is rapidly spreading in China. The 1.4 billion-person country has largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy. Although overall reported vaccination rates are high, booster rates are lower, particularly among the elderly. Domestic vaccines have been shown to be less effective against serious infection than Western-made messenger RNA variants. Many were administered more than a year ago, implying that immunity has waned.
The end result? A perfect environment for the virus to evolve.
“When we’ve seen big waves of infection, it’s often followed by new variants being generated,” Ray explained.
The original coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world about three years ago and was eventually replaced by the delta variant, then omicron and its descendants, which continue to plague the world today.
Many existing omicron variants have been detected in China, according to Dr. Shan-Lu Liu of Ohio State University, including BF.7, which is extremely adept at evading immunity and is thought to be driving the current surge.
According to experts, a partially immune population like China puts extra pressure on the virus to evolve. Ray likened the virus to a boxer who “learns to evade the skills that you have and adapt to get around those.”
One significant unknown is whether a new variant will result in more severe disease. According to experts, there is no inherent biological reason for the virus to become milder over time.
“Much of the mildness we’ve experienced over the past six to 12 months in many parts of the world has been due to accumulated immunity either through vaccination or infection, not because the virus has changed” Ray said.
The majority of people in China have never been exposed to the coronavirus. China’s vaccines use an older technology that generates fewer antibodies than messenger RNA vaccines.
Given these realities, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a virus researcher at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, believes it remains to be seen whether the virus will evolve in China in the same way it has in the rest of the world since vaccines were introduced. “Or will the evolutionary pattern be completely different?” she wondered.
The World Health Organization has recently expressed concern about reports of severe disease in China. As the number of severe cases increases, hospitals in the nearby cities of Baoding and Langfang have run out of intensive care beds and staff.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s plan to track the virus revolves around three city hospitals in each province, where samples will be collected from walk-in patients who are very sick and all those who die every week, said Xu Wenbo at a press conference Tuesday.
He claimed that 50 of the 130 omicron variants discovered in China caused outbreaks. According to him, the country is developing a national genetic database “to monitor in real time” how different strains are evolving and the potential consequences for public health.
However, there is currently little information about genetic viral sequencing coming out of China, according to Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“We don’t know all of what’s going on,” Luban admitted. However, “the pandemic is not over.”
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