The reduced severity of Omicron is good news for now, but it is the result of an “evolutionary mistake” as COVID-19 is transmitting very efficiently and there is no reason for it to become milder, indicating that the next variant could be more virulent, a leading Indian-origin scientist from the University of Cambridge has warned.
Ravindra Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases (CITIID), led a recent study on the Omicron variant and was among the first globally to describe the modified fusion mechanism of cells at play which might make Omicron more visible to the body’s immune defences.
While the study showed that the new variant, dominant in the UK and now sweeping parts of India, is infecting the cells found in the lungs less, the virus itself is not intending to become milder.
“There is this assumption that viruses become more benign over time but that’s not what’s happening here because those are long-term evolutionary trends,” Prof. Gupta told PTI in an interview on Thursday.
“SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) does not have that issue because it is transmitting very efficiently so it doesn’t have any reason to become milder, especially in the era of vaccination with plenty of susceptible hosts. So that’s why I think it’s an evolutionary mistake. It’s not something intentional that the virus is trying to do to change its biology,” he explained.
“This finding of reduced severity with Omicron is obviously good news for now but the next variant that comes, and there will be one, will not necessarily have these characteristics and could go back to the severity that we’ve seen before.
“And, in fact I think it probably will… Therefore, blocking infection is a potentially desirable thing to do rather than what I’ve heard, which is people seeing this as a natural vaccine. That is an understandable but dangerous thing to do because we don’t understand the complete implications of different variants on our health,” he said.
According to the UK-born scientist with familial roots in Uttar Pradesh, who advises the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), keeping up the vaccination drive is important because that remains “our first line of defence” against the virus.
“Whilst we have a situation of a milder variant, we should use that as a chance to increase vaccination coverage,” he said.
Asked how he sees the Omicron wave impacting India, Prof. Gupta said it was important to learn from other countries’ experiences and take pre-emptive action. Also, the types of vaccines used, with fewer RNA vaccines compared to the US and Europe, and genetic differences could play a role in India’s experience of the Omicron wave.
Gupta said: “In India, there were a lot of Delta infections so there’s some immunity there. The vaccines have been rolled out very nicely. We know that Omicron is able to escape from vaccines and third dose boosting is essential.