Experts at UEA Predict Rising Cases May Allow Virus to Evolve Into More Transmissible Variants

This discovery comes as a new article in the Journal ‘Virulence’ warns the lack of measures may allow for new virus mutations, resistant to vaccines.

Experts at the University of East Anglia and the Earlham Institute suggest these rising cases, while restrictions are easing, allow opportunities for the virus to spread, and therefore evolve into more transmissible, and deadly variants.

This is due to the vaccine’s ability to reduce deadly symptoms, but not reduce transmission with 100% effectiveness. The warning comes simultaneously to NHS Track and Trace’s announcement that they are also reducing the number of people identified as a close contact of a Covid-19 case.

Professor Kevin Tyler from UEA’s Norwich Medical School said, “although vaccines have weakened the link between infection and mortality, they should not be used as an argument to justify a broad change in policy for countries experiencing an exponential increase in infection numbers.

“Relaxing restrictions boosts transmission and allows the virus population to expand, which enhances its adaptive evolutionary potential and increases the risk of vaccine-resistant strains emerging by a process known as antigenic drift.” This refers to the continual random mutations in a virus’s genome that change the proteins on the virus particle’s surface. Every change to the protein has the potential to interfere with the immune system’s ability to fight the virus and reduce the protection provided by vaccinations or previous infection.

He went on to mention that although the majority of children are unvaccinated due to the risk of serious illness and long-term effects being very low, these new strains can still transmit among children and unvaccinated adults very quickly. He states that “vaccinating children may become necessary to control the emergence of new variants.”

Further concerns emerged about the evolution of future variants and the risks this poses to children, affirming that relaxing restrictions while children are not vaccinated risks unintentional selection of virulent variants evolved to infect children and people in vulnerable groups, such as those taking immunosuppressant medication and those with weakened immune systems, who throughout the pandemic were advised to shield.

Co-author and director of the Earlham Institute, Professor Neil Hall, said: “As long as there are large numbers of unvaccinated people around the world transmitting the virus, we’re all at risk.

“High numbers of Covid-19 cases increase the likelihood the virus will evolve to become more virulent, more transmissible, or capable of evading vaccines.”

Co-lead author and evolutionary biologist Prof Cock Van Oosterhout, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences has warned: “We have an arms race on our hands.

He describes the war, from the human side “fought with vaccines, new technology such as the NHS COVID-19 App, and our behavioural change, but the virus fights back by adapting and evolving.

“It is unlikely we will get ahead in this arms race unless we can significantly reduce the population size of the virus.”

He warns, due to the number of rising cases, we are ‘at evens’ with this virus. And as with many other coevolutionary arms races, there are no winners noting ‘Freedom Day’ is the same as dropping our guard in the middle of an arms race, giving the virus an advantage to infect the population.

The professor recommends, “During exponential transmission of virus, we need an ongoing, mandatory public health policy that includes social distancing and the compulsory wearing of face masks in crowded indoor spaces such as shops and on public transport.

“Our current vaccination programmes alone will not end the pandemic and scientific evidence suggests that we can only safely start to relax social restrictions when the R number is below one.”

Therefore, the resulting impact of July 19 ‘Freedom Day’ may be felt more widely and negatively as the year progresses.

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Una Jones

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June 2022
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