WASHINGTON (AP) – Can new variants of the coronavirus keep popping up?
Yes, as long as the virus that caused the pandemic is infecting people. However, this does not mean that new variants keep popping up or are more dangerous.
With more than half of the world still not vaccinated, the virus is likely to find people to become infected and replicate in them for several months or years to come. And every time a virus makes a copy of itself, a small mutation can occur. These changes could help the virus survive and become new variants.
However, that doesn’t mean the virus will continue to evolve in the same way since it emerged in late 2019.
When a virus infects a new species, it must adapt to the new host in order to spread further, says Andrew Read, a virus expert at Pennsylvania State University.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Delta variant is twice as contagious as previous versions of the virus. And while it could still mutate to become more contagious, it is unlikely to double its transmission rate again, says Dr. Adam Lauring, a virus and infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan.
“We went through a phase of rapid evolution for the virus. It has harvested the low-hanging fruit, but there is not an infinite number of things it can do, ”says Lauring.
It is possible for the virus to become more deadly, but there is no evolutionary reason for it. Extremely ill people are also less prone to socializing and spreading the virus to others.
Experts are observing whether emerging variants could better bypass the protection that humans develop against vaccinations and infections. As more people get the injections, the virus would need to be able to spread through people with some immunity for it to survive, says Dr. Joshua Schiffer, virus expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“The virus could adopt a mutation that makes the immune response less effective,” he says.
In this case, scientists may recommend updating vaccine formulas regularly, as well as annual flu shots.
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