(WJW) — Hospitals have been overwhelmed since the omicron variant became the dominant strain of COVID-19, but what comes next?
Experts with the World Health Organization expect the next COVID-19 variant to be even more contagious than omicron.
“The next variant of concern will be more fit, and what we mean by that is it will be more transmissible because it will have to overtake what is currently circulating,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the technical lead of COVID response at the World Health Organization, during WHO’s live Q&A on Tuesday.
Kerkhove said the bigger question is whether or not the next variant will be more severe. Some scientists have theorized that the next variant will be milder.
“We hope that is the case, but there is no guarantee of that and we can’t bank on it,” she said.
Another worry from experts is that COVID vaccines will become less effective as new variants come around.
“There may be more immune escape, which means our countermeasures, our vaccines, will be less effective. We don’t want to be in that situation, so again, we want to make sure that we reduce the spread,” Kerkhove said.
About 21 million COVID cases were reported to WHO in the past week alone.
Earlier this week, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech started clinical trials for an omicron variant-specific COVID-19 vaccine for adults ages 18-55.
According to reports, Pfizer’s CEO has said they expect to have a vaccine targeting omicron ready by March.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci had previously said there is no need for a variant-specific vaccine since the booster shots appear to be effective in preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations. According to a study conducted by the CDC, booster shots were 90% effective at keeping people with the omicron variant out of the hospital.
If the right steps are taken, WHO officials say they eventually expect the virus to settle into a low level of circulation with flare-ups and outbreaks among people who aren’t well protected.
It’s possible that it may also become a seasonal pattern, Kerkhove said.
“But the variants are a wild card. We still don’t know everything about this virus. We still don’t know everything about the variants and the future trajectory of that. What we do know is what works. Vaccines work, vaccines prevent people from needing hospitalizations and prevent people from dying,” Kerkhove said.
She also continued to urge that everyone to wear a mask, practice social distancing and improve ventilation to reduce the spread of the virus.
“That does not mean that we shut down society. What we’re looking for is a layered approach and we really need everybody’s help,” Kerkhove said.