COVID vaccine: Variants that beat jabs ‘will appear’ says expert
A clinical professor described groups of unvaccinated people as “viral factories” where new COVID-19 strains are born. It is primarily nations with largely unvaccinated populations, especially in Africa, that come to mind when thinking of such “factories”. However, places with high vaccination rates, including the UK, Spain, or UAE, are incredibly attractive scenarios for the virus, too.
Dr Anna Roca is an infectious disease epidemiologist with significant experience leading research groups in Southern and Western Africa.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, she said: “The ideal conditions for new mutations is a lot of immunised people with high transmission because there are then a lot of opportunities for the virus to mutate and to do it in a way that evades the immunological response.”
High transmission, she emphasised, is the ultimate source of potential new variants. And the larger the barriers the virus needs to overcome to endure, the stronger it reinvents itself.
Dr Roca explained: “The reason why variants happen is that when a high share of the population is already immune, the virus has to find strategies to survive.
“With SARS-CoV-2, the mutation rate has increased because now many people are immune.”
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While in Africa immunisation is mainly occurring through transmission, in the Western world it is through a combination of transmission and vaccination.
She added: “What you can expect in the new mutations is that they are fitter than the original virus. Fitter means more able to escape the vaccine.”
This suggests vaccines are, to some extent, a double-edged sword.
Dr John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said “it is most likely” mutations such as Omicron, first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from South Africa in November, will continue to appear until a vast number of the global population has been jabbed.
Jokingly, he added: “Or we could pray that the virus will miraculously decide to stop trying to evade our immunity.”
He told Express.co.uk: “It’s critical to get as many people as possible around the world vaccinated as soon as possible. The unvaccinated are viral factories and viral factories are where variants come from.”
In places such as The Gambia or other Western African nations, Dr Roca explained, “the vaccination rate is ridiculously low”, and it would be easy to assume the origin of all future strains is there.
Unmasked people in Chad, with less than a three percent vaccination rate, waiting to get tested
Firstly, she stressed, it is important not to generalise: “Sometimes we look at Africa as an entity but there are a lot of differences between the different countries.”
As of December 25, the vaccination rate in Morocco is 62.2 percent; in Rwanda and South Africa, 48.3 percent; in Algeria, roughly 15 percent, and in Chad, less than three percent.
One general trait across the African continent, except for a few countries, is a lack of adaptability in behaviour. In most regions, it has been “business as usual”, Dr Roca said.
She claimed: “Vaccination alone is not enough.”
Dr Swartzberg, on the same lines, warned “non-pharmaceutical interventions – masking, social distancing, avoiding congregate settings of people, especially indoors” are crucial.
Such measures are often not prioritised as there is a general confusion around the sort of protection jabs provide.
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While “on an individual level, when you are vaccinated you are protected, meaning you are less likely to need hospitalisation or to die”, epidemiologically, society works as one, Dr Roca explained.
She continued: “There is still risk to transmit [for the vaccinated], so you still need to be careful.
“New variants will happen. There is no reason to believe they will not happen.”
On a positive note, it is expected they will become less deadly.
Dr Swartzberg claimed: “In general, though with exceptions, viral infections tend to evolve toward more benignity. That is, it doesn’t help the virus to survive if it makes its host so ill that they stay at home in bed.
“Ideally, from the virus’s perspective, the host should be well enough to be with other people but still be coughing and sneezing.”
As the symptoms caused by the coronavirus become more gentle, the question arises – will there be an end to it?
Dr Roca said: “Eventually we are going to live with this and it’s going to be considered an endemic virus.
“How long it will take is difficult to predict.”
The WHO has this week said the virus was already on its way to becoming endemic.
Dr Maria Van Kherkhove, COVID-19 technical lead for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme warned, however, endemic status is not synonymous with no danger.
She said: “Endemic typically means it has a lower level of circulation, it is geographically bound, and you’ll see flare-ups of unprotected populations.
“We are on our way to that, nobody questions that, but we are very much still in the middle of a pandemic.”