COVID-19 outbreak in China increases chances of new coronavirus mutant

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

Scientists do not know, but fear that this could happen. It may be similar to the omicron variants circulating there now. It could be a combination of strains. Or something else entirely, they say.

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

Each new infection offers a 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. While overall reported vaccination rates are high, booster levels are lower, especially among the elderly. Domesticated vaccines have proven less effective against serious infections than Western messenger RNA versions. Many were given more than a year ago, which means that immunity has waned.

The result? Fertile ground for the virus to change.

“When we see large waves of infection, they are often followed by new variants being generated,” said Ray.

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

The Doctor. Shan-Lu Liu, who studies viruses at Ohio State University, said that 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 surge.

Experts said that a partially immune population like China’s puts special pressure on the virus to change. Ray compared the virus to a boxer who “learns to run from the skills you have and adapt to work around them”.

A big question mark is whether a new variant will cause more severe disease. Experts say there is no inherent biological reason why the virus becomes milder over time.

“Much of the mildness we’ve experienced over the past six to 12 months in many parts of the world is due to immunity built up 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 rely on older technology that produces fewer antibodies than messenger RNA vaccines.

Faced with these realities, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, said it remains to be seen whether the virus will follow the same pattern of evolution in China and the rest of the world after vaccines come out. “Or,” she asked, “will the pattern of evolution be completely different?”

Recently, the World Health Organization expressed concern about reports of serious illnesses in China. In the cities of Baoding and Langfang, outside Beijing, hospitals were left without intensive care beds and understaffed due to the increase in severe cases.

China’s plan to track the virus revolves around three municipal hospitals in each province, where samples will be taken from patients who are very sick and all those who die each week, said Xu Wenbo of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Illnesses. a briefing Tuesday.

He said 50 of the 130 omicron versions detected in China had resulted in outbreaks. The country is creating a national genetic database “to monitor in real time” how different strains have evolved and the potential implications for public health, he said.

At this point, however, there is limited information about genetic viral sequencing coming from China, said Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine.

“We don’t know everything that’s going on,” said Luban. But clearly, “the pandemic is not over”.

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

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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Educational and Science Media Group at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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