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China’s COVID outbreak of the epidemic newer, more dangerous variant virus strain is coming?

New crown patients in the Fourth People's Hospital of Langfang, Hebei Province are being treated
New crown patients in the Fourth People’s Hospital of Langfang, Hebei Province are being treated

WASHINGTON — Since China relaxed its coronavirus restrictions, there has been an explosive increase in infections. From strict lockdowns to instant large-scale outbreaks of cases, experts believe that the grim situation China is currently facing is unprecedented, and it has also raised a series of concerns about how the new coronavirus will evolve, whether it will give rise to new strains and whether the new strains will be more contagious and virulent.

“It’s unprecedented. I mean, it’s really, really unique, really unprecedented. Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology at Washington University in St. Louis, said in an interview with the media. He warned that if this continues, infections will soar further in China’s New Year’s eyes.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington School of Medicine recently predicted based on data from previous periods that without re-enforcing control measures, the number of infections in China could be as high as 4.6 million per day until March 1 next year.

The probability of virus mutation increases

As early as when China was still strictly implementing the “zero” policy, experts warned that although the policy can control the infection cases at a very low level, but also make herd immunity poor, once the lockdown measures are relaxed, there may be a tsunami of cases, and the probability of virus mutation will increase due to a surge in the epidemic in a short period of time.

“The key now is that the number of infections in China is exploding.” Al Ali of Washington University in St. Louis said.

Every time someone gets infected, he said, it could be a chance for the virus to mutate, so a massive explosion of cases would undoubtedly increase the likelihood of new mutations. “You know, the number of infections in China in such a short period of time increases the probability of a new variant emerging. We haven’t seen it yet (new strains). Still, the possibility is really increasing dramatically right now, just because the number of infected people is exploding rapidly in a very, very short period of time. ”

“When a virus circulates widely in the population and infects many people, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases.” The World Health Organization responds to the question “What causes the virus to change into new variants?” “The Chinese explanation of this problem.” When a virus spreads widely in a population and infects many people, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases. The more opportunities for the virus to spread, the more options there are for replication and the more opportunities for change. ”

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Al-Ali said there has been no surge in infections that have been seen releasing new coronavirus mutants, but the likelihood “is really rising dramatically right now.” ”

Will the large-scale outbreak of new crown cases in China lead to new, more dangerous strains? Ziad Alari, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told the media that the sharp rise in infection rates in China has indeed sharply increased the possibility of new variants. 

Peter Hotez, president of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, agrees that the current outbreak of infections is likely to prompt the emergence of new variants. “The uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus among a large number of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated populations in China could do this (promoting new variants), similar to the emergence of Delta among the unvaccinated population in India in early 2021,” he said in a tweet. ”

Possibly, the unchecked spread of Covid among a large unvaccinated or under-vaccinated population in China could do this (promote new variants). Similar to the emergence of delta among an unvaccinated population in India in early 2021 

Delta, the coronavirus variant first identified in India in October 2020, is thought to be one of the drivers of India’s second wave of the epidemic, becoming the dominant epidemic strain in more than 100 countries last year.

On the other hand, there are also experts who are skeptical. While China’s domestic vaccines are widely considered inferior to Western mRNA versions, official figures say that China’s vaccination rate is relatively high, with 90 percent of the population vaccinated. Jin Dong-yan, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Medicine, told the media that in theory, having so many people infected in a short period of time would increase the risk of new variants, “but in practice it is unlikely, and China’s vaccination rate is high.” ”

According to officials from an international coalition that tracks the pandemic, China’s current outbreak was caused by a strain of the virus that is already circulating around the world, and there are no signs of major new mutations. Bloomberg News reported Sunday that Chinese authorities submitted 25 genetic samples collected from Beijing, Inner Mongolia, and Guangzhou over the past month to the Global Influenza Sharing Database (GISAID), and Peter Bogner, the group’s chief executive, said there was no evidence of any significant new variants.

China’s state media Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday (December 27) reported that since the beginning of December, China has detected nine circulating subbranches of the new coronavirus, all belonging to the Omicron variant. In addition, Xu Wenbo, director of the Institute of Virology of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also explained to Xinhua that the Omicron variant subclade BA.5.2 and BF.7 account for the absolute predominance of the Chinese epidemic, which together exceeds 80%. Including the other seven Omicron variant subclades, no characteristic genomic mutations were found in any of these subclades.

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David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said it was difficult to determine which virus mutations were responsible for the current epidemic. In an email to the media, he said: “In the absence of more accurate nationwide population genomic surveillance, it is difficult to know exactly which variants are responsible for the majority of current cases.” ”

Shanghai citizens wait at the fever clinic of a hospital
Shanghai citizens wait at the fever clinic of a hospital

New strains are more deadly?

There are serious concerns not only about the emergence of new variants but also about whether new strains of the virus are more dangerous and could even cause a new pandemic.

In recent days, Chinese media have seen a lot of so-called “white lung” phenomena in some patients who have a large number of white or gray lesions in their lungs during CT scans. A report in the official Global Times newspaper said that a post said that the white lung phenomenon showed that the cases were not infected with the Omicron variant, but the original strain found in Wuhan, causing public concern and even panic. The newspaper said the experts they contacted said that no matter what variant the patient was infected with, the white lung is a normal symptom for severe and critically ill COVID-19 patients.

The British “Daily Mail” even reported under the headline “Experts warn that China’s new crown epidemic chaos may trigger an apocalyptic variant and return the world to the origin of the fight against epidemics”, saying that experts are worried that the outbreak in China may lead to the emergence of a new strain and spread globally.

A study last month warned that the next coronavirus strain could be more dangerous than Omicron. A team led by Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, has found that the pathogen may continue to mutate and that a new variant can cause more severe illness and death than the relatively mild Omicron strain. This study has not been peer-reviewed.

“Our study shows that in immunosuppressed people, the virus is more likely to develop more pathogenic variations,” Siegel said in an email to the media. “Whether this variant will actually appear is unclear.”

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Siegel’s team’s research found that the virus they studied caused the same levels of cell fusion and death as the Omicron BA.1 strain, but as it evolved, both levels rose to be similar to the first version of the coronavirus found in Wuhan, China.

However, Siegel pointed out that the situation in China is different because the Chinese do not have a high level of immunity from vaccines or previous infections, which would mean that Omicron will not have its usual advantage, but the Omicron subvariant is very good at replication and transmission, so the most likely scenario is that they will still outperform any completely new variant. Siegel expects people to see more of what is “infections are mostly uncomfortable, but not as dangerous because they tend not to spread to the lungs.” ”

Dowdy of Johns Hopkins University said that although the possibility of causing a new global outbreak is there, the risk is no greater than before. While the risk of new variants does increase as the scope of infection expands, it’s also important to recognize that transmission rates have also been high in many other parts of the world for more than a year, “with the difference that people in most other countries have the opportunity to develop immunity, so the level of severe illness and death elsewhere is much lower.” ”

In an email to the media, he said the current wave of coronavirus infections in China may be the largest we’ve seen in terms of individual countries, but globally, last winter’s Omicron wave was certainly even giant.

“I mean: there is definitely a risk of new variants emerging in this wave that could trigger a global outbreak, but that risk is lower because of global immunity levels than it was a year or more ago,” he said. ”

Hong Kong virus expert Jin Dongyan said that even if a new variant emerges, its virulence may not be so terrible, and “the virulence or danger of a new variant is likely not that great.” ”

Virologist Ziad Alari says the crux of the matter is that if a new variant emerges, people have no idea whether the new strain is more contagious and virulent. “It’s really not clear, that’s how the virus mutates, it’s really completely random,” he said. ”

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