High levels of infection will likely lead to new variants as the virus mutates

With the Omicron variant coronavirus, infections ramped up uncontrollably due to its increased transmissibility. Has the virus now peaked, or could a new variant set measures to control it back once more?

The World Health Organization has recently commented that the pandemic will not end with the Omicron variant and that the high levels of infection seen around the world will likely lead to new variants as the virus mutates. But what can we expect from future COVID variants, and what will our lives look like in the coming months and years?

We spoke to Nicholas Timpson, professor of genetic epidemiology at The University of Bristol, to get the lowdown from an population health science point of view.

Is it inevitable that we will have future COVID variants?

You could draw a parallel to the seasonal flu, not in terms of gravity or scale, but in terms of the appearance of variation. Flu vaccine is altered regularly and it’s an effort to attend to the presence of novelty in the pathogen and to prime people before they get exposed to it.

I think in the case of SARS-CoV-2, as the public we’ve been exposed to the idea that there is variation. And it seems rather intimidating? The pathogen that we thought we were familiar with is changing in front of us and the rules of engagement with that pathogen are not stable.

What’s fascinating about COVID-19 is that our best efforts to avoid the disease, the product of SARS-CoV-2 infection, change the game for the virus. It adds complexity to this story because we are keeping selection pressure on that virus, which is doing its best to survive. And, as we know, can replicate and be variable very quickly.

Now we’ve got this very large-scale event where lots of people with lots of copies of virus are around and on top of that we suppress [the virus] with great weight, either by controlling the population or by vaccine. The combination of these events, in my mind, leads to the inevitability of the emergence of new variation.

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