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World Health Organization provides clarity on evolution of Covid-19 virus

by Vaishali Sharma

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that experts do not have the same clarity on the evolution of coronavirus as they do on influenza or flu.

“This virus is still evolving. So what will the next variant look like? We do not have the same predictability as we have with influenza,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Covid-19 technical lead at the WHO.

Offering more clarification on her statement, Kerkhove took to Twitter to say that to manage the virus, the world needs greater data on the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS).

“What I mean by “predictability” relates to the seasonality of flu. #COVID19 doesn’t yet have a seasonality & this virus evolves differently. Globally, we need integrated respiratory disease surveillance building on @WHO GISRS (sic),” she said.

This comes just days after several scientists cautioned that Omicron’s rapid progress essentially guarantees that it would not be the last coronavirus to cause concern around the world.

Experts are unsure what the next versions will look like or how they will shape the pandemic, according to the Associated Press, but they warn that there is no guarantee that the Omicron sequels would produce milder illness or that existing vaccines will protect against them.

“The faster Omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,” said Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University.

Echoing his thoughts, Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University said: “It’s the longer, persistent infections that seem to be the most likely breeding grounds for new variants.”

“It’s only when you have a very widespread infection that you are going to provide the opportunity for that to occur,” he added.

Because Omicron appears to cause less severe disease than delta, its behaviour 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 do not spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses do not 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.”

Getting progressively better at evading immunity helps a virus to survive over the long term. When SARS-CoV-2 first struck, no one was immune. But infections and vaccines have conferred at least some immunity to much of the world, so the virus must adapt.

It is because of this, that experts have urged wider vaccination now, while the existing shots still work.

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