Could a new variant of COVID emerge in China?

Could the rise of COVID-19 in China cause the emergence of a variant of the virus? Scientists aren’t sure, but they worry about the possibility. It would be similar to the omicron variant already circulating there, or a combination of types or something else entirely, they claim.

“China has a huge population and limited immunity. And those seem to be the conditions for the emergence of a new variant,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Each new infection offers an opportunity for the virus to mutate, and the disease is spreading rapidly across China. The country of 1.4 billion people has already largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy.

While vaccination rates there are generally high, booster shots are not so high, especially among the elderly. Nationally manufactured vaccines are less effective than Western RNA-type ones. And many of the vaccines were given more than a year ago, which means that immunity has waned.

The result? A favorable field for the virus to transform.

“When we see high infection rates, it is usually followed by the emergence of a new variant,” Ray said.

About three years ago, the original version of the virus left China and spread to the rest of the world. Then came the delta variant and then omicron and its descendants, which continue to plague the world to this day.

Dr. Shan-Lu Liu, who studies viruses at Ohio State University, noted that several omicron variants have been detected in China, including BF.7, which is highly adept at evading immunity and appears to be driving the new wave. of infections.

Experts agree that a particularly vulnerable population like China’s could prompt the virus to change. Ray likened the virus to a boxer who “learns to dodge the punches you throw at him and adapts to move around them.”

A big unknown is whether the new variant will cause more severe symptoms. Experts agree that there is no reason to think that the virus is getting milder over time.

“For the most part, the mildness of symptoms in the last six to 12 months in many parts of the world is due to immunity acquired from vaccines or infection, not because the virus has changed,” Ray said.

In China, the majority of the population has never been exposed to the coronavirus. Chinese vaccines are based on older technology that produces fewer antibodies, compared to Western ones.

Given this reality, it will be necessary to see if the virus follows the same pattern of evolution in China as that which emerged in other parts of the world after the application of the vaccines, commented Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a virus researcher at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India.

“Or there’s the possibility that the evolutionary path is totally different,” he added.

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Correspondents Olivia Zhang and Dake Kang contributed to this story from Beijing.

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The Associated Press receives support for its health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The HPD is solely responsible for the content.

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