With different strains of COVID-19 hitting the United States already, some people are worried: Could there be a COVID “doomsday variant” some day?
Newsweek has brought the question of a doomsday variant into the public consciousness, reporting, “The odds are not high…but experts can’t rule it out.” How is Newsweek defining a “doomsday variant”? A COVID-19 strain that “shrugs off vaccines, spreads like wildfire and leaves more of its victims much sicker than anything we’ve yet seen?”
However, some prominent experts immediately blasted the Newsweek report, labeling it fear mongering. According to Fox News, experts say the report is “stoking undue fear among the public by amplifying unlikely worst-case scenarios.” Heavy spoke to an expert who believes a doomsday variant is unlikely to ever ha
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Experts Say a ‘Doomsday Variant’ Is Extremely Unlikely
Heavy spoke to Dr. Jeremy Kamil, who is an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Shreveport. He leads COVID-19 sequencing at LSU Health Shreveport and his research lab focuses on virus biology, using molecular genetics and pharmacology.
He believes a doomsday variant is extremely unlikely and that people should be talking instead about the importance of getting vaccinated because variants can develop when large numbers of people do not.
The doomsday variant talk is “extremely unlikely. It’s more of a morbid curiosity” that people have, he said.
Kamil said he would put the chances of a doomsday variant “at almost zero.” He thinks the talk derives from the psychological aspects of the pandemic. “It’s scary enough” so people up the ante like it’s a “zombie movie.” In reality, an extremely lethal mutation of COVID probably won’t happen, he said.
He said that the world has dealt with pandemics before, like influenza, and “they didn’t turn into a super virus that wiped everyone out…It’s slightly ridiculous.”
What people should be talking about, he believes, is “vaccine misinformation” that is preventing large numbers of people from getting vaccinated. He said the Delta variant is more infectious than the variants it knocked out and is spreading through unvaccinated populations and places where people have gone back to normal, behaving as they did pre-pandemic. This is starting to overwhelm the hospital systems in some states.
Kamil said that all viruses mutate. “Variants are very common, and they happen with all viruses,” he said.
Other experts concurred.
“We have every reason for optimism,” Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg, epidemiologist and associate researcher at University of California, Davis, told Fox News adding that she considered parts of the Newsweek article to be “fear mongering.”
“Epidemiologists and infectious disease docs should continue to study variants, but it is not necessary (or healthy in my opinion) for the public to go around worrying about the variants getting increasingly worse,” Høeg wrote Fox News.
Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases and chair of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau, told Fox News, “Everything in that article is correct but it doesn’t mean it is necessarily going to happen, these are possibilities,”
No one really knows for sure what will happen down the road, but the nation’s top infectious disease expert has warned that “trouble” could be coming.
“Viruses constantly change through mutation,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained. “A variant has one or more mutations that differentiate it from other variants in circulation. As expected, multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been documented in the United States and globally throughout this pandemic.”
As of August 6, 2021, the CDC says that no COVID variant has reached the worst category, called a “variant of high consequence.” Such variants would be more resistant to vaccines, cause more “severe clinical disease” and lead to increased hospitalizations.
Although he didn’t use the terminology “doomsday variant,” Dr. Anthony Fauci’s August 2021 comments to McClatchy News Service are raising concerns. Although experts don’t think a doomsday variant is realistic, they do fear that another more infectious variant could emerge.
“If another one comes along that has an equally high capability of transmitting but also is much more severe, then we really could be in trouble,” Fauci told McClatchy. Fauci told the news service that he is concerned by the potential for the virus to produce a new, more dangerous variant if more people don’t get the COVID-19 vaccines.
“What we’re seeing, because of this increase in transmissibility, and because we have about 93 million people in this country who are eligible to get vaccinated who don’t get vaccinated — that you have a significant pool of vulnerable people,” said Fauci.
Fauci is concerned that a variant could prove immune to the vaccines.
“If we don’t crush the outbreak to the point of getting the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, then what will happen is the virus will continue to smolder through the fall into the winter, giving it ample chance to get a variant which, quite frankly, we’re very lucky that the vaccines that we have now do very well against the variants — particularly against severe illness,” Fauci said to McClatchy.
“We’re very fortunate that that’s the case. There could be a variant that’s lingering out there that can push aside delta. If another one comes along that has an equally high capability of transmitting but also is much more severe, then we could really be in trouble.”
One concern is the “lambda variant.” According to the Tennessean, the lambda variant was first detected in Peru in August 2020 before spreading through South America and emerging in Houston on July 22, 2021. Experts are concerned this variant may be as infectious as Delta but more resistant to vaccines, the newspaper reported.
CDC notes, “All COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized in the United States are effective against COVID-19, including serious outcomes of severe disease, hospitalization, and death…However, the risk for SARS-CoV-2 breakthrough infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus.”
2. The Delta Variant Has Changed How Experts View the Virus
Fauci told McClatchy that the viral load in people who have the delta variant is “about 1,000 times higher in quantity” than people with the alpha or UK variant, which was surpassed by Delta as the “predominant” variant in the United States.
According to Newsweek’s expert, the Delta variant has changed how experts view COVID’s ability to mutate and what that can mean. More than 93% of cases in the U.S. are now the Delta variant.
“All coronaviruses mutate, and we knew this one was mutating, too,” Sharone Green, a physician and infectious disease researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Newsweek. “But we didn’t think the mutations would so strikingly affect transmissibility and possible evasion of immunity.”
Heavy has reached out to Sciline for additional expert opinions and will add them to this story when received.
As of August 6, 2021, the CDC explained, “Most U.S. states and jurisdictions are experiencing substantial or high levels of community transmission fueled by the spread of the highly contagious B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant. COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to increase, especially in communities with lower vaccination coverage. While the number of people getting vaccinated also continues to increase, many people remain unsure about getting vaccinated, and others do not plan to do so.”
3. The CDC Tracks ‘Genetic Variants’ of COVID-19
Only four variants are classified as variants of concern in the U.S.: “The B.1.1.7 (Alpha), B.1.351 (Beta), B.1.617.2 (Delta), and P.1 (Gamma) variants circulating in the United States are classified as variants of concern.” No variants have been classified as “high consequence.” The chart above shows how different variants have different levels of dominance in different states.
This chart shows the growth of Delta as a proportion of COVID cases in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, genetic variants of SARS-CoV-2 “have been emerging and circulating around the world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
CDC notes, “Viral mutations and variants in the United States are routinely monitored through sequence-based surveillance, laboratory studies, and epidemiological investigations.”
The CDC classifies variants into three categories,
Variant of Interest. Defined as “A variant with specific genetic markers that have been associated with changes to receptor binding, reduced neutralization by antibodies generated against previous infection or vaccination, reduced efficacy of treatments, potential diagnostic impact, or predicted increase in transmissibility or disease severity.”
Variant of Concern. Defined as “A variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.”
Variant of High Consequence. Defined as “A variant of high consequence has clear evidence that prevention measures or medical countermeasures (MCMs) have significantly reduced effectiveness relative to previously circulating variants.”
Alpha was first identified in the United Kingdom. It has “~50% increased transmission” and “Potential increased severity based on hospitalizations and case fatality rates,” according to CDC.
Delta was first identified in India. It has “Increased transmissibility” and “Potential reduction in neutralization by some EUA monoclonal antibody treatments” and “Potential reduction in neutralization by post-vaccination sera.”
Gamma was first identified in Japan and Brazil. “Significantly reduced susceptibility to the combination of bamlanivimab and etesevimab monoclonal antibody treatment, but other EUA monoclonal antibody treatments are available,” says the CDC of its attributes. “Reduced neutralization by convalescent and post-vaccination sera.”
The CDC is monitoring a number of “emerging variants,” including one in South Africa called “beta.”
“These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths,” CDC explains.
4. Viruses ‘Constantly Change Through Mutation,’ CDC Says
According to the CDC, viruses “constantly change through mutation,” but sometimes the new variants simply disappear.
“Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur,” they say. “Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.”
The CDC noted, “Viruses constantly change and become more diverse. Scientists monitor these changes, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus. By carefully studying viruses, scientists can learn how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads and how sick people will get from it.”
They used an analogy of a tree to explain this process. “If you think about a virus like a tree growing and branching out; each branch on the tree is slightly different than the others. By comparing the branches, scientists can label them according to the differences. These small differences, or variants, have been studied and identified since the beginning of the pandemic,” CDC explained.
“Some variations allow the virus to spread more easily or make it resistant to treatments or vaccines. Those variants must be monitored more carefully.”
5. More Than 612,000 People Have Died of COVID-19 in the U.S.
According to the CDC, as of August 6, 2021, more than 35 million people had contracted COVID-19, and more than 612,000 people had died from it
The 7-day case rate per 100,000 people was highest in Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
More than 492 million COVID tests have been performed.