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New COVID-19 variants that emerge could cause more serious illness and fatalities than previous strains, some scientists warn.
Though the Omicron variant had milder symptoms, that may not be the case for future strains, experts told the Guardian.
“There will be more variants after Omicron and if they are more transmissible they will dominate. In addition, they may cause different patterns of illness, in other words they may turn out to be more lethal or have more long-term consequences,” David Nabarro, a special envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organization, told the outlet.
Warwick University Professor Lawrence Young denied that there’s a “linear evolution of the virus from Alpha to Beta to Delta to Omicron.”
“The idea that virus variants will continue to get milder is wrong. A new one could turn out to be even more pathogenic than the Delta variant, for example,” he told the Observer.
Experts said it’s impossible to predict where the next variant will emerge from — or its characteristics.
“The Omicron variant did not come from the Delta variant. It came from a completely different part of the virus’s family tree,” Edinburgh University Professor Mark Woolhouse told the Guardian.
“And since we don’t know where in the virus’s family tree a new variant is going to come from, we cannot know how pathogenic it might be. It could be less pathogenic but it could, just as easily, be more pathogenic,”
The uncertainty about future variants should be factored into whether countries lift retrictions that were reimposed during the Omicron wave, experts said.
“It would be prudent to encourage people to protect themselves and others consistently. An approach that does not do this would be a gamble with potentially severe consequences,” Nabarro said.
“I cannot see any upsides to such a gamble. The pandemic has a long way to go and – as is the case since it started – people and their leaders will influence its long-term impact through actions they take now.”
The warnings come after Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested last week that the US is nearing the end of the “full-blown” phase of the pandemic and that virus-related restrictions may no longer be necessary.
“As we get out of the full-blown pandemic phase, which we are certainly heading out of, these decisions will increasingly be made on a local level rather than centrally decided or mandated,” Fauci told the Financial Times. “There will also be more people making their own decisions on how they want to deal with the virus.”