The genetic sequencing to capture the threat is dwindling as the Covid-19 tsunami sweeping through China has sparked fears that dangerous new variants may be emerging for the first time in more than a year.
China’s situation is unique because of the path it has taken throughout the pandemic. While nearly every other part of the world has battled the infection to varying degrees and received effective mRNA vaccinations, China has largely shunned both. The result is that immunocompromised populations face waves of disease caused by the most contagious strains yet to circulate.
The expected surge in infections and deaths is taking its place in a black box in China as the government no longer releases detailed Covid data. The rise has medical experts and political leaders in the United States and elsewhere worrying about another round of illnesses caused by the mutated virus. At the same time, the number of cases being sequenced each month to detect these changes has plummeted globally.
“More omicron subvariants are sure to be developed in China in the coming days, weeks and months, but in order to identify it early and act quickly, what the world has to anticipate is a whole new and exciting Variations of worry,” said Daniel Lucey, a researcher. Investigator of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Professor of Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth University. “It could be more contagious, deadlier, or evade detection by drugs, vaccines, and existing diagnostics.”
Lucey said the closest precedent for what might have happened was the experience of the delta virus in India in late 2020, when millions of people were infected in a short period of time and the deadly strain spread globally. While it is not inevitable, the world must prepare protectively for such an event so that vaccines, treatments and other necessary measures are ready, he said.
On Dec. 20, Xu Wenbo, director of the National Center for Viral Disease Prevention and Control, told a news conference in Beijing that China was paying close attention to the omicron subvariant circulating in the country. He said it had established a national Covid virus sequencing database that would receive genetic sequences from three hospitals in each province each week to catch any emerging variants.
“This will allow us to monitor in real time how the omicron subvariant is spreading in China and what it is made of,” he said.
Infections and deaths in China are now unclear after the country largely abandoned its mass testing regime and scaled back the way it measures the Covid death rate.
The virus has two routes in China. Omicron and its hundreds of sub-variants could sweep straight away, possibly in waves, leaving no room for other contenders — as it has in the rest of the world throughout 2022. Vaccination and infection will boost immunity until eventually the antibodies in the population will wear off helping to control severe disease.
“It could be that China is catching up, and the results are more of what we’ve seen,” says Stuart Twell, a virologist at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales. People are even binding to emerging variants. “Our antibodies are mature enough to deal with them.”
Another possibility is that something else is developing entirely, like the way the original omicron showed up in southern Africa in late 2021. This could pose a new threat to the world.
Omicron “comes out of nowhere,” Turville said. “It evolved in a different way. If that’s the path, and it spreads more easily, there could be another skydiving event that takes a trajectory that we didn’t expect.”
The fact that China has not had much previous exposure to the virus may work in its favor when it comes to the risk of new variants. In much of the world, the virus has been under intense pressure, forced to mutate like an acrobat to avoid existing antibodies, Turville said. This may not be necessary in China.
“It’s a different situation,” says virologist Alex Sigal of the African Institute of Health Research in Durban. “It’s going through a population that doesn’t have a lot of immunity. Just because there are more infections doesn’t mean we’re going to have more severe infections.”
On the other hand, it might give other new variants a chance to take off because there is no such immunity, Sigal said. If anything worse, that could be problematic.
This was Tver’s greatest concern.
“Maybe it’ll go the other way because there’s no pressure and there’s more room to move,” he said. “It could be a huge shift, something completely different. It might be a low probability, but it’s a possibility, and we have to be prepared for it. For now, it’s crystal ball gazing.”
Omicron doesn’t penetrate the lower respiratory tract as some earlier strains do, and it doesn’t do as much damage. Its superpowers include its infectivity and ability to evade existing immunity, a combination that has opened the door for other variants — including those that are potentially deadlier.
Not everyone is worried. Differences in the immune environment in China versus the rest of the world make it unlikely that emerging omicron subvariants will have an advantage over already circulating subvariants, says Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah.
“I’m not particularly concerned right now about new dangerous variants coming out of China,” he said. “I don’t think what’s going on in China will have a big impact on what’s going on elsewhere,” he said. “Will something pop up and cause a problem? Maybe — but we can’t predict it, it’s not what I would expect,” he said.
While Covid science has become highly politicized in China, officials there also say that even if omicrons continue to mutate, the danger is remote.
catch the killer
However, a global halt to sequencing for Covid could mean a new and potentially dangerous variant evades detection before it spreads widely.
“It’s going to hurt us,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for Covid-19. “We need to bring this to the attention of people around the world,” she said.
The WHO scientist said the virus “has not stabilized into a predictable pattern”. “We know it’s going to keep going. The idea that it’s only going to get milder is wrong. It could — we hope — but it’s not guaranteed.”
(Aside from the title, this story is unedited by NDTV staff and published via a syndicated feed.)
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