Since the beginning of this year, the initial version of Omicron, known as BA.1, has been spinning off new sublineages — BA.2, BA.2.12.1, BA.4, BA.5 — at an alarming pace, according to experts. According to Eric Topol, founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute, although variants had a similar pattern, their offshoots “had no functional consequence” and “they did not increase transmissibility or pathogenicity.”
Experts are worried as Omicron’s rapidly proliferating mutants are getting better at sidestepping immunity and sickening people who were previously shielded by vaccination or prior infection.
“As difficult [as] it is to mentally confront, we must plan on something worse than Omicron in the months ahead. We absolutely need an aggressive stance to get ahead of the virus — for the first time since the pandemic began — instead of surrendering,” Topol wrote on Sunday.
“The independent appearance of four different mutations at the same site? That’s not normal,” immunologist Yunlong Richard Cao of Peking University told Science magazine. Already, Omicron and its descendants “should be called SARS-3,” added Linfa Wang, a bat coronavirus researcher at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore — an entirely distinct virus. Given how fast the virus is changing, Topol and other experts said that it’s time for that to change too.
According to experts, the major problem is that the coronavirus has become more adept at reinfecting people. There are several instances in which those infected with the first omicron variant are reporting second infections with the newer versions of the variant — BA.2 or BA2.12.1 in the United States, or BA.4 and BA.5 in South Africa.
“It seems likely to me that that’s going to sort of be a long-term pattern. The virus is going to keep evolving. And there are probably going to be a lot of people getting many, many reinfections throughout their lives,” said Juliet Pulliam, an epidemiologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
However, experts also claimed that they did not expect this pattern. Earlier in the pandemic, experts thought that immunity from vaccination or previous infection would forestall reinfections. However, Omicron and its mutants changed that perspective.
“If we manage it the way that we manage it now, then most people will get infected with it at least a couple of times a year. I would be very surprised if that’s not how it’s going to play out,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.
The experts suggested that the COVID-19 vaccines should be updated more quickly, even more quickly than flu vaccines are each year to keep up with the evolving virus. Even an imperfect match to a new form of the coronavirus will still broaden immunity and offer some protection, they said.