RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, Head of Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks at a press conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on January 29, 2020.
Denis Balibuz | Reuters
The next variant of Covid-19 to grab worldwide attention will be more contagious than omicron, but the real question scientists need to answer is whether it will be more deadly, World Health Organization officials said Tuesday.
Approximately 21 million cases of Covid have been reported to WHO over the past week, setting a new global record for weekly cases of the rapidly spreading omicron variant, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Covid-19 technical lead, said during a live Q&A on the group’s social network . media channels.
While Omicron appears to be less dangerous than previous strains of the virus, the sheer number of cases is afflicting hospital systems around the world.
“The next variant of the fear will be more appropriate, and by that we mean that it will be more contagious because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating,” Van Kerkhove said. “The big question is whether future options will be more or less severe.”
She cautioned against believing theories that the virus will continue to mutate into milder strains that make people less sick than earlier variants.
“There are no guarantees for this. We hope so, but there are no guarantees and we cannot count on it,” she said, noting that in the meantime, people should observe public safety measures. What’s more, the next iteration of Covid could bypass vaccine protections even further, 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 shots are failing infections and minor illnesses 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 the Pfizer vaccine was 90% effective in preventing omicron hospitalization 14 days after the third dose.
Booster doses are also 75% effective in preventing symptomatic omicron infection two to four weeks after the third shot, according to data from the UK Health Safety Safety Agency released earlier this month. However, a study has shown that boosters weaken significantly after about 10 weeks, providing 45% to 50% protection against symptomatic infection.
While omicron appears to have peaked in some countries, it is gaining momentum in others, WHO officials said. “You won’t have to wear a mask forever, and you won’t have to physically distance yourself, but for now we need to keep doing that,” Van Kerkhove said.
The virus will continue to evolve before becoming a pattern, said Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s director of emergency programs. He said there was hope that it would settle down to low transmission levels with potentially occasional outbreaks. It could become more seasonal or only affect vulnerable groups, he said.
According to him, the problem is that Covid is unpredictable.
“The virus has given us some nasty surprises,” Ryan said. Global health officials should continue to monitor Covid as it evolves and be prepared, he said, “if there is a nasty surprise, we can at least take action again to keep this new variant from causing more damage.”