Next Covid-19 variant will be more infectious than Omicron, possibly deadlier, warns WHO

By | February 9, 2022

Even as the world limps back to normalcy with the Omicron wave subsiding, experts have warned that the next Covid-19 variant will be more transmissible, and perhaps, more deadly than its predecessors.

In a recent press briefing, World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist and technical lead on Covid-19 Dr Maria Van Kerkhove stressed that the pandemic is far from over and future variants will be in some way more virulent than Omicron is now.

“The next variant of concern will be more fit, and what we mean by that is it will be more transmissible because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating. The big question is whether or not future variants will be more or less severe,” Dr Van Kerkhove said.

She further warned that the next variant could more easily evade immunity, rendering vaccines less effective. However, she doubled down on the imperativeness of getting the jab as it protects against severe illness and death, as exhibited during the Omicron wave.

READ | BA.2 form of Omicron more detectable, no evidence of it being severe: WHO

“We expect that with the right interventions, the circulation of Covid-19 will be low. But even within those circulations, there will be flare-ups among people who are not protected by the vaccine or those who have waning immunity,” added Dr Van Kerkhove.

HOW DELTA, OMICRON EVOLVED

The Delta variant that was first detected in India in October 2020 was labeled a variant of concern by the WHO. Delta was spreading 50 per cent faster than the Alpha variant, which was 50 per cent more contagious than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as the coronavirus.

Cut to six months later and the Delta strain had ravaged the country, causing a record-breaking number of daily cases and claiming lives. By June 2021, it was responsible for a fresh surge in cases in the UK, Israel, Russia, Australia and several other parts of the world.

Omicron, which was quickly tagged as a variant of concern after being detected in South Africa in late November 2021, has replaced Delta as the dominant strain in a much shorter interval. Though milder, Omicron is at least two to four times more transmissible than the Delta variant. It also possesses an enhanced ability to evade vaccines, on top of a reinfection rate five times that of Delta.

Dr Van Kerkhove has cautioned that there is “no guarantee” the coronavirus will get weaker as it evolves and that although the world might hope that’s the case, “we can’t bank on it.”

READ | Milder Omicron an ‘evolutionary mistake’? UK expert warns of next, more lethal variant

IS THERE AN END IN SIGHT?

However, there is a silver lining too. A study conducted at Steve Biko Academic Hospital Complex in South Africa offers a possibility of Covid-19 ending in the near future.

Based on the results, the researchers suggested that “Omicron may be a harbinger of the end of the epidemic phase of the Covid pandemic, ushering in its endemic phase”.

These studies are, however, only indicative and conditional to the emergence of new variants.

WATCH | Omicron wave to hit rural India in less than a month, says top biologist

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