Could the COVID-19 surge in China unleash a new mutant coronavirus on the world?
Scientists don’t know but fear it might happen. It could be similar to the Omicron variants currently circulating there. It could be a combination of tribes. Or something completely different, they say.
“China has a very large population and limited immunity. And that seems to be the framework in which we might see an explosion of a new variant,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.
Each new infection gives the coronavirus a chance to mutate, and the virus is spreading rapidly in China. The country of 1.4 billion has largely abandoned its “zero-COVID” policy. Although overall reported vaccination rates are high, booster rates are lower, particularly among the elderly. Domestic vaccines have been shown to be less effective against serious infections than Western-made versions of messenger RNA. Many were administered more than a year ago, meaning immunity has waned.
The result? A fertile ground for the virus to change.
“When we’ve seen large waves of infection, new variants are often generated,” Ray said.
About three years ago, the original version of the coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world and was eventually replaced by the Delta variant, then by Omicron and its descendants, which plague the world to this day.
dr Shan-Lu Liu, who studies viruses at Ohio State University, said many existing Omicron variants have been discovered in China, including BF.7, which is extremely adept at evading immunity and is believed to it drives the current surge.
Experts said a partially immunized population like China’s puts extra pressure on the virus to change. Ray likened the virus to a boxer who “learns to elude the skills you have and adapts to work around them.”
A big unknown is whether a new variant will cause a more severe disease. Experts say there is no inherent biological reason why the virus needs to become milder over time.
“Much of the mildness we’ve seen in many parts of the world over the last six to 12 months is due to accumulated immunity, either from vaccination or infection, and not because the virus has changed in severity.” said Ray.
In China, most people have never been exposed to the coronavirus. China’s vaccines are based on older technology that produces fewer antibodies than messenger RNA vaccines.
Given these realities, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, said it remains to be seen whether the virus will follow the same evolutionary pattern in China as the rest of the world did after the vaccines came out. “Or,” she asked, “will the pattern of evolution be completely different?”
Recently, the World Health Organization expressed concern over reports of serious illnesses in China. In the cities of Baoding and Langfang outside Beijing, hospitals have run out of intensive care beds and staff as severe cases rise.
China’s plan to track the virus focuses on three city hospitals in each province, where samples are taken from very sick patients and everyone who dies each week, said Xu Wenbo of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention briefing on Tuesday.
He said 50 of the 130 Omicron versions detected in China have resulted in outbreaks. The country is creating a national genetic database “to monitor in real time” how different strains are evolving and what their potential impact on public health is, he said.
At this point, however, there is limited information on virus genetic sequencing from China, said Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“We don’t know everything that’s going on,” Luban said. But of course, “the pandemic is not over yet”.
AP video producer Olivia Zhang and reporter Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.
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