The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. In fact, when it comes to the rise of new variants, the worst may still be yet to come.
That’s according to World Health Organization (WHO), who spelled out a strong warning this week to countries hoping to loosen their social distancing measures amidst rising COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“The Committee has expressed concern that the pandemic is being mischaracterized as coming to an end when it is nowhere near finished,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said at a media briefing on July 15.
“It has also warned about the strong likelihood for the emergence and global spread of new and possibly more dangerous variants of concern that may be even more challenging to control.”
Variants are the product of mutations, random changes in the genetic sequence. Mutations are constantly occurring in viruses, most of which are inconsequential or harmless – but some acquire worrying mutations that are predicted or known to affect the viruses’ transmissibility, disease severity, or immune escape. Currently, there are four variants of concern that fit this bracket – Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma – and they have been largely responsible for the waves of cases and deaths we've seen since December 2021. A myriad of factors allowed for the emergence of these variants, but it’s clear that more COVID-19 cases simply mean there’s a higher chance a potentially dangerous mutation will occur.
Since early June 2021, the world has seen yet another wave of new cases. According to Johns Hopkins COVID Dashboard, there were over 569,000 confirmed new cases on July 15 – and the trajectory is continuing to point upwards at a worrying angle. Despite this clear resurgence, some countries are looking to open borders and relax social distancing rules, hoping their vaccination program has made enough ground to protect the population. However, this is wishful thinking in the eyes of the WHO and many other leading scientists, who argue that the pandemic is far from under control and the easing of restrictions is likely to spur on the creation of new dangerous variants of concern.
One notable example is the UK, whose government has decided to drop most restrictions in England on July 19 despite new cases in the country sharply rising and the ongoing presence of the highly infectious Delta variant. In light of this move, more than 1,200 scientists have recently signed an open letter to the Lancet journal warning the strategy is dangerous and could allow vaccine-resistant variants to develop.
“We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment,” the letter reads.
“Preliminary modeling data suggest the government's strategy provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants. This would place all at risk, including those already vaccinated, within the UK and globally,” it continues.