COVID-19 surge in China raises odds of new mutant coronavirus

Could the rise of COVID-19 in China trigger a new mutant coronavirus in the world?

Scientists don’t know, but they are concerned that this could happen. It could be similar to the omicron variants circulating there now. It could be a combination of strains. Or something completely different, they say.

“China has a very large population and has limited immunity. And that seems to be the scenario where we may see an explosion of a new variant,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Each new infection offers the chance for the coronavirus to mutate, and the virus is spreading rapidly in China. The country of 1.4 billion people has largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy. Although overall reported vaccination rates are high, booster levels are lower, especially among older people. Domestic vaccines have been shown to be less effective against serious infections than Western-made mRNA versions. Many were administered more than a year ago, which means immunity has waned.

The result? Fertile ground for the virus to change.

“When we’ve seen large waves of infection, often new variants are generated,” Ray said.

About three years ago, the original version of the coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world, eventually being replaced by the delta variant, then omicron and its descendants, which continue to plague the world today.

Dr. Shan-Lu Liu, who studies viruses at Ohio State University, said many existing omicron variants have been detected in China, including BF.7, which is extremely adept at evading immunity and is believed to be driving the current increase.

Experts said a partially immune population like China’s puts particular pressure on the virus to change. Ray likened the virus to a boxer who “learns to evade the abilities you have and adapts to get around them.”

A big unknown is whether a new variant will cause more serious disease. Experts say there’s no inherent biological reason why the virus should get milder over time.

“Much of the mildness that we’ve experienced in the last six to 12 months in many parts of the world is due to built-up immunity either through vaccination or infection, not because the virus has changed” in severity, Ray said. .

In China, most people have never been exposed to the coronavirus. China’s vaccines are based on older technology that produces fewer antibodies than mRNA vaccines.

Given those realities, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, said it remains to be seen whether the virus will follow the same pattern of evolution in China as it did in the rest of the world after the vaccines came out. . “Or,” he asked, “will the pattern of evolution be completely different?”

The World Health Organization recently expressed concern about reports of serious illness in China. Around the cities of Baoding and Langfang, on the outskirts of Beijing, hospitals have run out of intensive care beds and staff as severe cases spike.

China’s plan to trace the virus centers on three city hospitals in each province, where samples will be collected from walk-in patients who are very sick and from all those who die every week, said Xu Wenbo of the Chinese Center for the Control and Prevention of Diseases. a briefing on Tuesday.

It said that 50 of the 130 versions of omicron detected in China had resulted in outbreaks. The country is creating a national genetic database “to monitor in real time” how different strains were evolving and possible public health implications, she said.

At this point, however, there is limited information on genetic viral sequencing coming out of 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 clearly, “the pandemic is not over.”


AP video producer Olivia Zhang and Beijing-based reporter Dake Kang contributed to this report.


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