Humanity ‘not ready’ for potentially ‘serious’ Covid variant, warn scientists

Scientists are warning over a potential new Covid variant that they believe could be a "serious problem" due to us not being prepared.

Although the virus seems to be here to stay, vaccines and milder variants mean hospitalisation and death rates have plummeted and many countries have dropped most or all restrictions that kept the virus at bay.

But scientists keeping an eye on the disease expect there to be more variants in future, and some will almost certainly be more dangerous than the likes of Omicron and its BA.5 subvariant.

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John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California-Berkeley's School of Public Health, said: "The virus always figured out a way to survive. I see nothing that suggests it’s not going to continue to do that."

Researchers believe more Covid waves are inevitable as different genetic mutations of the virus battle it out in a bid for dominance.

Which one comes out on top will determine the course of the next wave.

The best-case scenario is if a milder mutation of the virus wins out next time, giving boffins time to prepare for a worse form of the virus that will eventually follow.

Worst case is that a stronger mutation of Covid comes sooner and we're left unprepared to deal with it.

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So far two possible new variants have been identified. The first is another sub-variant of Omicron, a relatively mild form of Covid that at its peak saw a hundred thousand Brits contract the virus per day last winter – meaning many people have the antibodies to fight off serious infection.

But the other possibility is a new variant that evades our antibodies altogether.

Judging by the past two years, it's pretty safe to say the next major peak in cases will come this winter, when we'll find out which variant has emerged victorious.

If it's an Omicron sub-variant, key mutations such as the pathogen's protein spike will resemble those that our bodies have had to fight off before and vaccines will be better equipped to protect us from the virus – meaning that while infections will likely go up, and deaths may increase slightly, we shouldn't see a dramatic surge in serious cases.

If it's not an Omicron sub-variant, the world could be in for a bumpy ride.

New variants typically look very different from older ones as radical mutations give them a genetic leg-up on the forms of Covid that came before them – meaning there’s a chance the virus will change so much, our antibodies no longer recognise it.

This is what's known as a "immune escape" among scientific circles.

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Anthony Alberg, a University of South Carolina epidemiologist, told The Daily Beast : "A major genetic shift that would greatly increase its ability to infect humans regardless of vaccination status and prior infections."

But even if an Omicron sub-variant wins out, such as those now being monitored including BA.5.2, BA.2.75, or BA.4.6, it could spell danger.

"We could wish for a new subvariant of Omicron that is so successful at evading immunity [that] it could be a serious problem for us," Swartzberg added.

"Be careful what you wish for."

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