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25 August 2021updated 12 Oct 2021 11:54am

Why you don’t need to worry about “Covid-22“

The reality of potential variants is nowhere near as severe as the fear-mongering that surrounds them suggests, says the epidemiologist Tim Spector.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

An immunologist has caused a social media storm after predicting the arrival of “Covid-22”, a hypothetical coronavirus variant that he claims could be more serious than already-known mutations such as the Delta and Delta Plus strains.

The so-called Covid-22 variant could arrive next year if current variants of concern mutate, posing a risk to the end of the pandemic, said Sai Reddy, an associate professor of systems and synthetic immunology at ETH Zürich.

Speaking to the German newspaper Blick, Reddy predicted that “Covid-22 could get worse than what we are witnessing now”. He added: “If such a variant appears, we have to recognise it as early as possible and the vaccine manufacturers have to adapt the vaccine quickly.”

Is there cause for concern?

Virus mutations should be, and are, treated with the utmost concern. Reddy claims that a new, more deadly Covid-19 variant, which he calls “Covid-22”, is “inevitable”. 

“There are the well-known variants Beta from South Africa and Gamma from Brazil,” he told Blick, in remarks that have been translated from German. “Both have developed escape mutations: they can partially avoid the antibodies. Delta, on the other hand, is much more contagious, but has so far not developed any escape mutations.”

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Reddy’s fear is that a variant will emerge that combines both properties. “It is the next phase of the pandemic when Beta or Gamma become more infectious or Delta develops escape mutations.”

But while a few variants have shown some early evidence of immune escape, experts say that natural and vaccine-induced immunity still largely protects against serious illness in most cases.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said the realities of potential variants are nowhere near as severe as the fear-mongering that surrounds them suggests.

“We’ve seen lots of these [scare stories] before and we’re going to see many more of them – it’s just fuelling people’s worst fears in a very unhelpful way,” he said. 

“The history of viruses is that they’re continuously mutating… There’s an unlimited number of potential doomsday scenarios that could occur – but that’s true of most viruses that we have, but they don’t tend to happen.

“The chances are that none of these doomsday scenarios will ever occur… There’s many more likely [less severe] scenarios that don’t get discussed because they’re too boring for social or mainstream media.”

From his ZOE Covid study, which has tracked the health of more than a million fully vaccinated people, Spector found that while the Delta variant has had a slight impact on efficacy, the current vaccine portfolio largely offers good levels of protection against severe illness and death from all known coronavirus variants.

“Most people are still being protected, and any change from a new variant is likely to have a similar course,” said Spector. “It’s not like the vaccines are going to suddenly be completely ineffective” against any future variants, he added. “There can be different levels of protection.”

Why is it called “Covid-22”?

Another pressing thing to note is Reddy’s terminology, which runs counter to the scientific consensus when discussing the possibility of what he calls “Covid-22”.

He labelled the Delta variant “Covid-21”, but this is inaccurate. The variant, and all other variants of concern, are a mutation of and from the same lineage (or family) as the original Sars-CoV-2 virus that was first discovered in 2019. Furthermore, the Delta variant was discovered in 2020 and not 2021.

The term “Covid-22” has not been recognised by the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or any other scientific entity. There is already a formal process for identifying any new mutations that may pose a risk.

What does the future hold?

While it is a possibility that new coronavirus variants may emerge in the future, there is currently no Covid-22 super-variant in circulation.

What we do know is that the current portfolio of vaccines has largely offered good protection against serious illness from the variants that have so far emerged.

More protection could also be on the way: booster shots to current vaccines may be administered this winter and, on average, 33.7 million doses are being given each day worldwide, giving protection to more people.

As has happened throughout the pandemic, any new variants of concern that do emerge will have the full attention of the scientific community.