The next Covid-19 variant that will get the world’s attention will be more contagious than omicron, but the real question scientists need to answer is whether it will be more deadly or not, World Health Organization officials said on Tuesday.
Approximately 21 million Covid cases were reported to the WHO over the past week, setting a new global record for weekly cases from the rapidly spreading omicron variant, said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Covid-19 technical director, during a livestreamed Q&A across the group’s social media channels.
While omicron appears to be less virulent than previous strains of the virus, the large number of cases are crushing hospital systems worldwide.
“The next variant of concern will be more appropriate, and what we mean by that is that it will be more transferable because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating,” Van Kerkhove said. “The big question is whether future variants will be more or less severe.”
She warned against buying into theories that the virus will continue to mutate into milder strains that make people less ill than previous variants.
“There is no guarantee of that. We hope that is the case, but there is no guarantee of that and we can not trust it,” she said, noting that people should take public security measures into account in the meantime. What’s more, the next iteration of Covid may also evade vaccine protection even more, making existing vaccines even less effective.
Pfizer and BioNTech on Tuesday began testing a Covid vaccine specifically targeting the omicron variant, as concerns grow that current shoots are not holding up against infections and mild disease caused by the strain discovered just over two months ago.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a study published last week that a booster dose of Pfizer’s vaccine was 90% effective in preventing hospitalization from omicron 14 days after the third shot was given.
Booster doses are also up to 75% effective in preventing symptomatic infection from omicron two to four weeks after the third shot, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency released earlier this month. However, the study found that boosters weaken significantly after about 10 weeks, providing 45% to 50% protection against symptomatic infection.
While the omicron appears to have peaked in some countries, it is gaining ground in others, WHO officials said. “You do not have to wear a mask forever and you do not have to take physical distance, but for now we have to keep doing this,” Van Kerkhove said.
The virus will continue to develop before it sets in a pattern, said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO Director of Emergency Programs. He said it would hopefully fall into a low transmission level with potentially occasional epidemics. It may become more seasonal or may only affect vulnerable groups, he said.
The problem, he said, is that Covid is unpredictable.
“The virus has been shown to give us some nasty surprises,” Ryan said. World health authorities need to continue to track Covid as it evolves, he said, and be clear, “if there is an unpleasant surprise that we can at least reintroduce measures that will stop this new variant from doing so. more damage. “