COVID-19, viral evolution, and the potential of a more threatening pandemic

Updated: Jan 24

While the newest Omicron variant dominates the discussion as it has just taken the reign of the dominant variant, scientists are not only worried about the current situation or what will happen in the next few months. They are more concerned about the ultimate potential of a more threatening pandemic such as influenza, or worse if COVID-19 vaccination rates do not increase, allowing the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 to continue, thus creating congenial opportunities for evolving deadlier viral variants.

Scientists have been studying decades-old blood samples from people most likely exposed to 229E – a seasonal coronavirus that infects people repeatedly throughout their lives – in addition to analyzing evolutionary changes already seen in the Omicron and Delta variants. Investigating these factors has caused worry among the scientific community; many are concerned that these forces propelling these ‘antigenic changes’ will likely grow stronger as most of the population gains immunity to the virus.

Moreover, earlier variants of concern (Alpha, Beta, and Gamma) that arose before Delta and Omicron seemed to be more infectious than the strains they displaced and contained mutations that obstructed the potency of infection-blocking ‘neutralizing’ antibodies triggered by previous infection or vaccination—suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 has already begun to behave like 229E.

Read on about the research here.