NEWS

Are More COVID-19 Variants Coming?

Jessica Olah / Verywell

This story is part of a series where we look at the ways COVID-19 has changed our lives and how it will continue to affect public health in 2022.

Key Takeaways

  • Viruses mutate by nature, therefore variants are always expected to develop.
  • New COVID-19 variants of concern may develop again as long as the virus is able to mutate, though it’s difficult to predict when they will emerge.
  • Global vaccine inequity must be addressed to reduce COVID transmission and minimize further harm.

One year ago, as we ushered in 2021, there were three circulating COVID-19 virus variants of concern (VOC) in the U.S.—Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.

But by the second half of the year, the highly transmissible Delta variant ripped through the country, quickly becoming the predominant virus strain. Delta now accounts for more than 96% of cases across all states. With the newly identified Omicron gaining traction, we'll be ending the year with two variants that are drastically different from what we started with. 

Over the course of the year, it almost felt like new alarming variants cropped up every few months. Is this what lies ahead for us in 2022 as well?

While it's difficult to pinpoint how or when experts say variants will likely continue to emerge into the new year.

Why Do Variants Develop? 

The constant emergence of new variants can be daunting to hear about. But, it's important to remember it is the nature of viruses to mutate. As a virus spreads and infects more people, it gets more opportunities to subtly change to become a "better" virus.

“Viruses can mutate in order to adapt to their surroundings to become a more fit virus,” Mahdee Sobhanie, MD, infectious diseases physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Verywell. “This mutation can make the virus be more transmissible or difficult to treat. Think of a mutation as a way for the virus to better evade our immune systems, therapies, or vaccines.”

Mutations can cause small differences in the virus when it comes to:

  • Transmissibility
  • The way disease presents itself
  • Resistance to medical treatments
  • Ability to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity

Not all mutations are dangerous or necessarily a matter of concern. Some mutations have no significant effect on how the virus works, or make the virus more vulnerable and weaker instead. In these cases, they can die out or disappear entirely.

However, those with a selective advantage—such as increased transmissibility or a better ability to evade immunity—can become a potential threat.

“Viral mutations can be dangerous, especially if they do a good job at evading the defenses of our immune system or can overcome the therapies or vaccines we have,” Sobhanie said.

For example, influenza viruses mutate constantly. Even if you've had the flu before or have been vaccinated, the body's immune system might not recognize and prevent sickness caused by the newer, slightly different virus. This explains why new flu vaccines are released every year—because people can become susceptible to the flu again. These vaccines are reviewed every year and updated as needed to match the influenza viruses that are currently making people sick.

“In the past, we had a couple more options to treat influenza," Sobhanie added. "However, we now have limited therapies for influenza. This is why we always encourage patients to get their flu shots.”

How About COVID-19?

All viruses mutate, and the virus that causes COVID-19 is no different. It’s difficult to predict when a new variant will occur, Sobhanie said. However, we can expect that variants will develop as long as the virus is able to mutate. So, expect to see a few more variants in 2022.

So many variants emerged early on this year that the World Health Organization (WHO) found it necessary to use the Greek alphabet as the new variant naming system starting in May.

With the new naming system, it became easier to set variants apart and understand how they differ from one another, especially when it comes to communicating the degree of health threat they pose to the public.

Although Delta and Omicron are currently the only VOCs in the U.S., there are 10 other variants being monitored (VBM).

Variants under the VBM classification are those with potential or clear impact on medical interventions or association with more severe disease, but are circulating at very low levels or are no longer detected. Should they pose a significant and imminent risk to public health in the U.S., the variant will be reassessed and its designation can change. 

Overall, the COVID-19 virus has mutated a lot since it was first detected nearly two years ago in Wuhan, China, and it will continue to evolve and change itself as it replicates.

What This Means For You

Though it’s difficult to predict when new COVID-19 variants of concern may emerge in the future, it’s likely to occur, so you must protect yourself by getting your COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots when eligible.

What’s Next for COVID-19?

Scientists have yet to characterize and fully paint a portrait of the newly identified Omicron variant and its properties, which will give us an idea of what lies ahead on COVID-19's viral evolution.

“COVID-19 virus variants are always expected as part of the natural evolution of any virus,” Arjun Venkatesh, MD, Yale Medicine Emergency Medicine physician and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, told Verywell. “Given our experience to date, we should continue to anticipate new variants in the future, particularly until we hit a more steady-state globally in terms of vaccination and prior infections.”

Largely unvaccinated populations give the virus plenty of opportunities to mutate and enhance its properties, but keep in mind that variants can also proliferate in vaccinated groups of people.

“Variants can develop in highly vaccinated populations as well as in less vaccinated populations,” Venkatesh said. “The difference is how well they spread and become a ‘dominant variant,’ which is difficult in highly vaccinated populations that give the virus less of a chance to transmit between people and become widespread.”

The future of COVID-19 is not yet clear, and we need a better understanding of how quickly the virus evolves in response to immunity. As of the moment, we don't know if it's likely to take on the path of measles, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza, or other seasonal coronaviruses.

If new variants quickly develop better resistance to existing public health measures and medical interventions, the outcome can be disastrous for everyone. Experts emphasize that the only way forward is getting the pandemic under control on a global scale. No country can find its way out of the pandemic alone.

What Can We Do in 2022?

Given that new, harmful variants may emerge at any time, we must ramp up global COVID-19 public health efforts and strategies. 

“Variants are common and expected in the evolution of any virus, so trying to stop mutations may be a fool’s errand,” Venkatesh said. “Rather, widespread global vaccination would help delay the onset and transmission of a new variant just as we have observed communities in the United States with higher vaccination rates having delayed surges of the Delta variant, and often of lower magnitude of harm than in areas with less vaccination.”

It’s important to mitigate the short- and long-term harm of the virus, which means reducing transmission so that future variants that develop around the world are less likely to cause harm, he added. Increasing global vaccination by dealing with inequitable vaccine distribution is necessary for reducing avoidable deaths and minimizing the global threat of new variants.

According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO, the vaccine inequity crisis can be addressed by doing the following:

  • Countries with high volumes of vaccines should swap near-term delivery schedules with COVAX and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT)
  • High-income countries that promised to share or donate their doses must fulfill their pledges immediately
  • Vaccine manufacturers should prioritize and fulfill contracts with COVAX and AVAT with full transparency 
  • All countries must do away with export restrictions and trade barriers related to COVID-19 vaccine distribution and production

Many believe that the conditions caused by inequitable vaccine access have contributed to the emergence of the recently identified Omicron variant.

The WHO's goal was for countries to fully vaccinate 40% of their populations by the end of the year. However, as of December 8, more than 50 countries are reportedly unlikely to meet this target.

“The U.S. has made early efforts to contribute to global vaccination, but must lead in accelerating vaccination efforts globally through donations, grants, diplomatic means with strategic partners, and perhaps even military support should flexible logistics be a major hurdle,” Venkatesh said.

So far, the U.S. has shared almost 370 million doses and is pledging to deliver 200 million more doses within the next 100 days. In 2022, key countries, vaccine manufacturers, and health agencies must do more to ensure that vaccines are distributed globally. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres previously stated, no one is safe until all of us are safe.

To do your part and build protection against the virus and its potential variants, you should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and get your booster shots when eligible.

“Everyone should get vaccinated, boosted, and wear a mask,” Sobhanie said. “What we are seeing is that the vast majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated. Mutations are more likely to occur when COVID is allowed to replicate or make more copies of itself. One way to stop the spread and replication of COVID is to get vaccinated. The more shots in arms, the better protected we are.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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