Doomsday COVID variant worse than Delta and Lambda may appear, scientists say

Doomsday COVID variant worse than Delta and Lambda may appear, scientists say
Doomsday COVID variant worse than Delta and Lambda may appear, scientists say

Scientists continue to underestimate the coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic, they said the mutated versions of the virus would not pose much of a problem - until the more infectious Alpha caused a spike in incidence last fall.

Beta then made young people more infectious, and Gamma re-infected those who had already recovered from COVID-19. However, by March, as the US winter outbreak receded, some epidemiologists were cautiously optimistic that the rapid proliferation of vaccines would soon tame the varieties and the pandemic would subside.

Now Delta has destroyed that optimism. This variant, first identified in India in December, is spreading faster than any previous strain of SARS-CoV-2, as the COVID-19 virus is officially called. It is increasing infection rates in all states in the United States, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to re-recommend the use of masks everywhere.

The Delta virus outbreak will get much worse, warns Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"The number of intensive care beds needed may be greater than ever," he says. Unless these stringent isolation and protection measures are taken, the 100 million Americans who have not yet had COVID-19 are likely to develop it in the coming months.

This option is so contagious that it could cancel out all previous predictions about how soon the United States will achieve herd immunity. "We were unable to stop this pandemic, like other pandemics," says Jonathan Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Davis who studies the evolution of pathogens. "It can last forever, leaving us constantly trying to figure out what to do next."

Delta, like most other options, caught us off guard, making the pandemic worse and longer. As the damage from Delta begins to diminish, what other options will lurk right behind it to pull us down again? The World Health Organization is already monitoring several: Eta, which is now in several countries; Kappa, originated in India; Iota, which first appeared in New York, and especially the Lambda that swept through Peru and, according to one of the first studies, shows unusual success in infecting fully vaccinated people. It has already spread to Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, as well as Texas and South Carolina.

It's too early to tell if Lambda will be the next big bad virus to release COVID-19 on us. But now is the time to think: How destructive can these options become? Will future options expand their attack from the lungs to the brain, heart, and other organs? Maybe they will follow the example of HIV and deceive people into thinking that they have recovered and then get sick?

Is there a version of Doomsday that does not respond to vaccines, spreads like wildfire and leaves behind more victims than anything else we've seen?

The likelihood that we will see such a triple threat is low, but experts cannot rule out this. Delta has already shown how much worse the situation can be. Its extreme contagiousness, with the potential to spread freely among tens of millions of vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans and millions of others without access to vaccines in developing countries, has the potential to turn into something even more unpleasant.

"The next option," says Osterholm, "could be Delta on steroids."

This shouldn't have happened. At the start of the pandemic, most experts scrutinizing COVID-19 mutations downplayed the possibility that variants could cause such serious problems.

Delta, more than any other option, has revolutionized scientists' beliefs about how quickly a virus can evolve into destructive new forms. “All coronaviruses mutate, and we knew this one was mutating too,” says Sharon Greene, a physician and infectious disease researcher at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. “But we didn’t think mutations would affect transmission and potential immunity evasion so much.”

It may seem surprising that scientists were caught off guard by the rapid emergence of a more dangerous option.

Scientists have underestimated the scale that a pandemic could eventually reach - a critical factor, because the more people a virus infects, the more opportunities it has to develop significant mutations. "Infecting billions of people is a breeding ground for species, unlike anything we've ever seen with these kinds of viruses."

Could the new option bypass the vaccine? Delta appears to be able to infect vaccinated individuals more easily than previous variants, which reduces the effectiveness of mainstream vaccines. A recent Israeli study found that the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine fell to 39 percent.

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