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Local scientist says don’t expect new variants anytime soon, but more small adaptations from omicron

Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
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Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Omicron is the most recent mutation of the original COVID-19 Wuhan strain to be labeled a variant of concern by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The variant acquired dominance quickly by being more transmissible than its predecessors but much -less fatal. Those are the traits one local scientist says most viruses are aiming to achieve.

"We think that's because it's probably a good idea for a new pathogen not to kill its host,” said David Topham, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, UR Medicine. Topham said viruses thrive when their host can interact with another host. He said Omicron’s ability to evade vaccine immunity and maintain these other characteristics makes it the best mutation thus far.

“Once you've optimized yourself to be the best you can, how much more can you change,” Topham asked, noting that omicron’s small adaptions are different from the larger evolutions the virus has gone through in the past. “So now the changes are smaller... but it's enough to give those strains just enough of an advantage.”

The new COVID-19 variants that have been originating in South Africa are all directly linked to the omicron variant. Scientists are calling them sub-lineages. Topham said the little improvements being made to omicron, in the form of subvariants, are the best this coronavirus can technically do for now. Somewhat like the old saying, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ In this case, maybe just a little. However, Topham says eventually those small changes may create a bigger problem.

“Given enough time, those changes may amount to enough of a difference that now it’s escaping the vaccine almost entirely,” he said. Topham foreshadowed that this scenario may require making changes to the current COVID-19 vaccine, similar to what is done to the flu vaccine every few years.

Topham said scientists have developed an omicron-based vaccine that is currently being tested. For now though, the current vaccine still provides a degree of immunity to almost any new variant that emerges.

“If you've been infected or vaccinated, you're going to be immune, just to a certain extent,” he said.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.