Experts have warned the next dominant Covid variant could become more manageable than Omicron, but it is also possible it could go the other way and mirror the spread of HIV or tuberculosis
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Covid could become more stealthy like HIV or tuberculosis in a longer “silent” phase of infections, experts have warned.
While the Omicron variant continues to run rampant through the UK, some biologists claim the pandemic has reached a significant crossroads.
The current dominant variant – first identified at the end of the last year – is highly transmissible but its effectiveness appears to be slowly being tamed by antibodies, including from vaccines.
With some predictions suggesting it could have run its course by mid-February.
However, Omicron is just one in a line of controlling variants seen over the last two years and the next winning mutation will be the one most adept at dodging immune defences, say experts.
Whether it will be more deadly than what’s already been seen remains up in the air, reports the Bakersfield Californian.
“We’re still in the early days of the ‘getting to know you’ phase,” said Stanford microbiologist Dr David Relman, adding at such stages things are “least predictable”.
“The virus will continue to try lots of things,” he said, “because that’s how they succeed.”
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To begin with, the virus only cared about quickly transmitting itself to as many people as possible, but now, with more than 35.6 million people in the UK alone having had boosters and 47.7 million double-jabbed, it faces its toughest test.
Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport, agreed the world is now “well equipped” for the fight but viruses are always coming up with “countermeasures”.
Studies suggest Omicron doesn’t latch onto the lung cells as tightly or quickly as Delta, so is far less likely to cause pneumonia and fatalities, and instead targets the bronchus airways.
This could help to explain how it has been able to spread so quickly – but eventually, it will run out of people and be replaced by something worse or more manageable, the experts say.
Kamil and Relman both suggest Covid could become more stealthy, like tuberculosis or HIV, with a longer “silent” phase of infection.
Others, including Andrew F. Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State, said it might become even more transmissible, like measles.
In that case, a new symptom might be even more severe coughing, allowing it to spread faster.
Bette Korber, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said it may even slowly become something more akin to the common cold-causing virus.
She added: “But it is very hard to define what ‘slow’ means, and to predict its evolutionary trajectory, even over the next year or so. It may be a bumpy ride.”