So far, the virus has been notably uncreative at evading our vaccines, with just a limited repertoire of changes. For instance, despite being separated by thousands of miles, the delta variant first discovered in India and a variant most common in California used the same mutation to try to dodge our antibodies. Variants that independently emerged in South Africa and Brazil also share a mutation.
“There are a handful of ways that the virus has mutated to avoid some of the antibody response,” none of them very effective, said Crotty. “And it keeps coming up with them over and over again. And so far, that doesn’t appear to be a big problem.”
But there are troubling signs of increased virulence. The death rate associated with alpha, or the U.K. variant, was about 64% higher than previous variants. Now, compared to alpha, the delta variant doubles the risk of hospitalization among the unvaccinated, based on new Scottish data. Scientists don’t know if that is because of a genetic change or simply because it grows so rapidly.
It is unlikely to suddenly morph into a virus that kills quickly, scientists add. The pandemic has exploded because the virus is so sneaky, multiplying in unvaccinated people who feel fine and continue to socialize.
“Evolutionarily, killing your host is not a very smart thing for a virus to do,” said UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Monica Gandhi.
To quickly detect the next mutation that could alter the trajectory of the pandemic, the U.S. must more fully harness the power of genomics, said experts.
Only close surveillance through gene sequencing will tell us if the virus has taken another big jump.
“At some point,” said Ernst, “it’s likely that the virus will reach the point that it’s tried out everything. And we respond.”
“There will be some equilibrium,” he said, “but I don’t know where that is.”
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