China’s COVID-19 surge raises odds of new coronavirus mutant

Could the rise of COVID-19 in China unleash a new mutant coronavirus on the world?

Scientists don’t know, but they worry it could happen. It could be similar to the omicron variants now circulating out there. It can be a combination of strains. Or something else entirely, they say.

“China has a very large population and limited immunity. And that seems to be the environment where we can see an explosion of the new variant,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Each new infection provides a chance for the corona virus to mutate, and the virus is spreading rapidly in China. The country of 1.4 billion has largely abandoned its “zero COVID” policy. Although overall reported vaccination rates are high, booster vaccination levels are lower, particularly among older people. Domestic vaccines have proven less effective against serious infections than Western versions of messenger RNA. Many were given more than a year ago, which means that immunity has weakened.

The result? A breeding ground for virus change.

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“When we’ve seen large waves of infection, it’s often followed by the creation of new variants,” Ray said.

About three years ago, the original version of the coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world and was eventually replaced by the delta variant, then omicron and its descendants, which continue to plague the world today.

Dr. Shan-Lu Liu, who studies viruses at Ohio State University, said many existing omicron variants were discovered in China, including BF.7, which is extremely adept at evading immunity and is believed to be driving the current surge.

Experts say partially immune populations like China are putting particular pressure on the virus to change. Ray compared the virus to a boxer who “learns to avoid the skills you have and adapts to get around them.”

One big unknown is whether the new variant will cause more severe disease. Experts say there is no inherent biological reason for the virus to become milder over time.

“Much of the mildness we’ve experienced over the past six to 12 months in many parts of the world has been due to accumulated immunity either through vaccination or infection, not because the virus has changed in severity,” Ray said.

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In China, most people have never been exposed to the corona virus. Chinese vaccines rely on older technology that produces fewer antibodies than RNA vaccines.

Given those realities, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at the Vellore Christian Medical College in India, said it remains to be seen whether the virus will follow the same pattern of evolution in China as it has in the rest of the world after the outbreaks vaccines. “Or,” she asked, “will the pattern of evolution be completely different?”

Recently, the World Health Organization expressed concern over reports of a serious illness in China. In the cities of Baoding and Langfang outside Beijing, hospitals have run out of intensive care beds and staff as severe cases rise.

China’s virus monitoring plan centers around three city hospitals in each province, where samples will be collected from patients who are very sick and those who die each week, said Xu Wenbo of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. briefing on Tuesday.

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He said 50 of the 130 versions of Omicron discovered in China have resulted in outbreaks. The country is creating a national genetic database “to track in real time” how different strains are evolving and the potential implications for public health, he said.

At this point, however, there is limited information on the genetic sequencing of viruses coming from China, said Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“We don’t know everything that’s going on,” Luban said. But it is clear that “the pandemic is not over”.

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AP video producer Olivia Zhang and reporter Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Division receives support from the Science and Education Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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