Don’t expect the next COVID variant to be mild, warn experts

February 17, 2022, 4:09 PM UTC

The Omicron wave of COVID-19 appears to be waning across the U.S., and infection rates are once more returning to pre-January levels, but experts are warning Americans not to become too complacent: They’re all but certain that plenty of new variants will spread across the country. 

What they’re not certain of, however, is just about anything else. 

“The tough thing about COVID that we’ve learned over and over again is that there is no crystal ball to tell us what’s coming next,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and associate dean at the Brown University School of Public Health, told Fortune. “It is totally possible that we will go months without a new dangerous variant…But it’s equally possible that a month from now there’s a new variant that is more deadly and more transmissible.” 

As COVID enters its endemic stage, we’ll likely see a mix of harmless mutations, as well as mutations of the virus that are particularly bad, she said. The country will need to have a system in place to quickly communicate around and mitigate the effects of both, so that future waves of the virus don’t overwhelm hospitals, shut down the economy, and most important, take lives. 

The virus still has an enormous playing field across the globe, Kartik Chandran, a virologist and professor of microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Fortune. It has been given a lot of room to fester and mutate into new variants as vaccination rates across the world remain low. 

The next variant of the virus will likely “look quite a lot different than Omicron,” in the same way that Omicron looked different from the Delta variant, according to Chandran. It’s not a linear progression to a more mild version of COVID: “You have to think about this as an incredibly bushy tree of viruses, and we just have no idea which particular branch of the tree will fall at any given time.”

Chandran said he worries that people are already suffering from COVID fatigue and are ready to cling into the idea that the disease will evolve to be less virulent. “There’s really no biological basis to that assertion,” he added. 

While some long-term viruses, like herpes, live in their hosts for decades and have an interest in keeping them alive, “these kind of respiratory viruses are more of a smash and grab thing,” said Chandran. “You’re very quickly transmitting a virus: It’s essentially like a game of frogger, where it’s jumping from lily pad to lily pad. The virus doesn’t care what the previous variant was like, it doesn’t matter if the virus makes you really sick or not. Its only goal is to spread quickly.”

Still, both Chandran and Ranney stress that vaccinations, masking, and social distancing will lower the impact of any future COVID wave. 

The country just needs to learn to work at instituting a COVID precaution protocol based on virus data, said Ranney, who believes a malleable and easily communicable warning system is exactly what we need for a disease that keeps mutating and changing in levels of variant severity.

She imagines a system of communication similar to a tornado alert, in which there are various levels of caution: There are basic precautions put into place to prepare for a potential tornado, and there are times when it’s best “for you to go hide in your basement.” 

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