Omicron Nightmare COVID variants are cracking the code for our immune systems

You might not know it by looking around with all the uncovered faces, but there are still plenty of novel coronaviruses out there. And the virus seems to mutate faster than ever, creating variants and subvariants that are more contagious.

The evolving trends of SARS-CoV-2 may not mean that there will inevitably be spikes in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. At least not everywhere or for very long.

But it highlights an uncomfortable truth: despite the lifting of COVID restrictions in most countries other than China, despite the eagerness of many to weather the pain and uncertainty in Two years ago, the pandemic was not over. Viruses are not mutated.

The newest sub-variables are the easiest to cast. BA.4 and BA.5, both children of the Omicron variant, first appeared in South Africa last month. The closely related BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 first appeared in New York around the same time.

BA.4 and BA.5 are Spread more than 10 percent compared to their immediate predecessor, Omicron’s BA.2 form. BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 are 25% more contagious. Equally alarming, BA.4, BA.5, BA.2.12 and B.2.12.1 are rapidly becoming dominant in their respective regions of origin just a few months after BA.2 became available. dominate. BA.2 for its part suffered from competition and replaced its parent, BA.1, just a few months after BA.1 became dominant.

In other words, the main new secondary variables seem to come to us faster and faster. In that sense, the virus appears to be winning a genetic game of chance. Faced with the semi-permeable antibody barrier from vaccines and past infections, pathogens are becoming more contagious.

Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast. “This will lead to a flurry of new variants emerging and spreading in host populations more frequently.”

But this wide range of variants is a price we must pay for immunity that extends across entire populations. You can’t have the latter without getting the former. So while it looks like COVID is winning, in reality its genetic victory may be fleeting.

Niema Moshiri, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego, last year urged The Daily Beast to think of every COVID case as a gambler playing a slot machine. Each infection tends to produce two mutations every two weeks, Moshiri explains. In other words, the virus is pulled on the lever twice per month, in the hope of scoring a genetic jackpot that will give it some new advantage over other viruses – and some new ways to infect its host.

“What if we had 50 million people using the same slot machine leverage at the same time?” Moshiri asked. “We expect at least one person to win the jackpot quickly. Now, let’s replace the slot machine with a ‘clinically significant SARS-CoV-2 mutation’, and that’s the situation we’re in. “

To complete the metaphor, let’s add a sense of urgency on the viral part as immunity mounts higher around it. Sensing the threats surrounding it, the novel coronavirus is playing the games with more determination than ever before.


A man adjusts a COVID testing tent in Times Square on April 27.

Spencer Platt / Getty

Throughout the wave of viruses and crashes over the past 30 months, there have never been fewer than a few million active COVID cases. During the worst spike in early 2021 and early 2022, there were tens of millions of concurrent infections. Given the high rate of SARS-CoV-2 mutations, it is not surprising that the virus has produced a steady stream of significant new variants – “lineage” is a scientific term.

Yes Delta, the more virulent lineage has driven the worst wave of infections in 2021 while much of the world is just beginning to gain access to effective therapies and vaccines. In late 2022, scientists in Botswana and South Africa detected the first cases of a new lineage, Omicron.

Mutations along the mutant protein, the part of the virus that helps it attach to and infect our cells, make Omicron more contagious than Delta. On the worst day of the Omicron wave on January 19, officials counted no less than 4 million new infections in just 24 hours. This is more than four times the number of cases compared to the worst days of consecutive Delta waves in January and April 2021.

Strong global vaccine uptake, plus lingering antibodies in tens of millions of people from past infections, has reduced the worst outcomes from Omicron. When Omicron first appeared, about half of the nearly 8 billion people in the world had at least one dose of the vaccine. Today, more than two-thirds are at least partially stabbed.

Add to that the natural antibodies from hundreds of millions of past infections, and the human immune wall looks pretty impressive. Breakthrough infections are common, but all those antibodies are really good at stopping the virus from causing serious illness that can lead to death.

So cases increase as Omicron becomes dominant, but deaths do not. On the deadliest day of the Omicron surge on February 9, 13,000 people died globally – fewer than 5,000 deaths on Delta’s worst day on January 20, 2021.

More cases but fewer deaths, a phenomenon epidemiologists call “separation,” have defined the evolution of COVID as we hover in the third year of the pandemic. There are signs of detachment that can actually become more extreme. After all, immunity leads to separation But also promotes a virus to mutate faster into strains that are more transmissible.

Immunity encourages mutations, which can boost immunity by producing antibodies from mild infections. It is an accelerated positive feedback loop whose products are antibodies and virus strains.

The growing gap between infection and death may actually be a best-case scenario, absent the novel coronavirus that “extincts itself” by running itself into a genetic corner. Many experts firmly believe that a dead evolutionary process is wishful thinking when it comes to respiratory viruses. “I think self-extinction is unlikely,” Jesse Bloom, an investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Washington State, told The Daily Beast.

The bad news is, perhaps we need to learn how to deal with the more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants and the rapidly emerging subvariants. The good news is we know how to cope. Experts call it BA.4, BA.5, BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1.


A traveler at Los Angeles International Airport wears a mask on April 18 after a federal judge in Florida revoked the national mask-wearing rule for planes and other public transportation.

MediaNews Group / Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty

Some immunity does not mean complete escape from immunity. Natural antibodies and vaccines still work. They are the reason cases and deaths from the basal Omicron lineage are separated. They are also the reason separation is likely to happen with Omicron’s nasty little ones. Stephanie James, head of the COVID testing lab at the University of Regis in Colorado, told The Daily Beast: “Mutants don’t seem to cause disease as stated.

All that said, expect to hear a lot about new lines and sublines in the coming months as they emerge and become dominant at an increasingly rapid rate. Don’t be surprised if you get one of them, even if you’ve been vaccinated and boosted and may even have antibodies from a past infection.

But don’t panic. Keep getting vaccinated and you’ll probably be fine.

Unless, of course, the development of SARS-CoV-2 takes a dangerous turn. Escaping the immune system is pretty minor given all the major and minor lines we’ve seen over the past two years. That is not to say that viruses cannot evolve to achieve significant immune escape. If the mutations are like a slot-playing pathogen and the jackpot is a new variant, the one that can pierce our antibodies is a big jackpot.

If the virus wins that gambling, everything changes. Omicron Nightmare COVID variants are cracking the code for our immune systems


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