What awaits us after Omicron? Here’s what German virologists predict

Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Omicron – and what’s next? It is to be expected that coronavirus will continue to evolve. Whether new variants will be more infectious or more dangerous to humans remains to be seen – but we do have data from accumulated experience.

The virus will certainly continue to evolve

The Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus will probably continue to evolve sooner or later – new variants may emerge. However, one can only speculate about their properties, explains Ralf Bartenschlager, president of the Virological Society. “Experience shows, however, that as the virus adapts to its host, its pathogenicity usually decreases,” – says the virologist.

The term pathogenicity is used to describe the ability to cause disease. Bartenschlager explains that this does not mean that as a result of this adaptation the virus will no longer cause any disease, but that usually this ability to cause disease is reduced. An example of this is the new Omicron variant, which, although it spreads faster in Germany than the Delta variant, the disease course is generally milder, according to the researchers. Richard Neher of the University of Basel stresses that there is no direct relationship between severity and transmissibility. According to him, it is also not possible to make general statements about the evolution of the virus in terms of its infectivity, that is, the ease with which the pathogen spreads in a specific population.

Coronavirus will definitely stay with us

It is considered quite likely that coronavirus will continue to evolve. At least in the long term, this is very possible, Bartenschlager explains, adding that the virus will certainly become endemic and thus “stay with us.”

An important selection pressure to which the new Sars-CoV-2 variants are now subject is the efficiency of spread in a population with a large number of people resistant to the virus, says Klaus Überla from the Institute of Virology at the University Hospital Erlangen. This means that in order to survive, the virus must find a way to escape the immune response of its hosts, the humans. Protection against infection arises from both vaccination and infection. It is to be expected that more variants will emerge that will more effectively escape the immune response.

New variants of the virus must be detected early

Since it can be observed in different countries that the infection rate of the new Omicron subvariant designated BA.2 is increasing, it can be suspected that BA.2 has a higher spreading capacity than BA.1, says Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Hospital Frankfurt. The higher infectivity combined with a more effective escape of the immune response could lead to more people becoming infected with BA.2, as the protection provided by a past infection or vaccine will be less effective in this case. Ciesek adds, however, that it is possible that they will still protect against a severe course of the disease.

Neher believes a return of the Delta variant is also possible. “Delta is a very contagious variant that, after a certain period of time, when the immunity weakens, may again gain the upper hand against Omicron,” he says in an interview published by the University of Basel. But a new variant with unknown properties could also emerge, he adds. So, in his view, the emergence of new variants of the virus must continue to be closely monitored in order to detect new mutations early, understand their properties and be able to prepare for new waves of infection.

Überla believes that it is impossible to predict whether new variants of the virus will be more or less dangerous. The ability to spread rapidly through a population and how dangerous a variant is to those infected are different properties of viruses that can evolve independently of each other.

Source: www.rtl.de

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