Next variant could be more transmissible than omicron, WHO says

The World Health Organization's COVID-19 technical lead dismissed theories that the next potential COVID-19 variant will be milder than earlier strains and explained why it will likely be more contagious than omicron. 

"Omicron will not be the last variant that you will hear us talking about," Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, said Jan. 25. "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." 

What's more important, however, is whether future variants will cause more or less disease severity, Dr. Van Kerkhove said, adding that global health officials do expect there to be more immune escape with future variants, which means vaccines may be less effective against them. She emphasized the importance of interventions, such as ramping up global vaccination coverage, to slow the current spread and prevent the emergence of new variants. 

The WHO official warned against assuming that the virus will become milder as it continues to mutate. 

"There is no guarantee of that," Dr. Van Kerkhove said. "We hope that is the case, but there is no guarantee of that and we can't bank on it." 

The bottom line is that "variants are a wild card," Dr. Van Kerkhove said, adding that officials are still learning about the virus and don't have a complete picture into its future trajectory. 

"What we do know is vaccines work. Vaccines prevent people from needing hospitalizations and prevent people from dying," she said. 

More than 21 million new COVID-19 cases were reported globally for the week ending Jan. 23 — a global record for new weekly cases, the WHO said in its latest epidemiological update. 

The WHO's Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said global conditions are ripe for new variants to emerge during a Jan. 24 briefing. 

"It is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame," he said.


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