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Next Covid strain may be more dangerous than Omicron, study finds

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A recent lab study using coronavirus samples from an immunosupressed person over six months revealed that the virus evolved to become more pathogenic, suggesting that a new variant could cause worse illness than the current predominant omicron strain.

The research was conducted by a South African laboratory. The study, conducted by the same lab that was to first test the omicron strain against vaccines in 2021, used samples from an individual infected with HIV.

At first, the virus caused the same level of cell fusion and death as the omicron BA.1 strain, but as it evolved those levels rose to become similar to the first version of the coronavirus identified in Wuhan in China.

The lab study indicates that the pathogen could continue to mutate and a new variant may cause more severe illness and death than the relatively mild omicron strain. However, the study is yet to be peer reviewed and is based solely on laboratory work on samples from one individual.

The study is led by Alex Sigal at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban. Sigal and other scientists have earlier postulated that variants like beta and omicron, both initially identified in southern Africa, may have evolved in immunosuppressed individual such as those infected with HIV.

The long time it takes for these individuals to shake off the disease allows it to mutate and become better at evading antibodies, they have stated.

The analysis “may indicate that SARS-CoV-2 evolution in long-term infection does not have to result in attenuation,” the researchers said in their findings, which were released on 24 November. 

“It may indicate that a future variant could be more pathogenic than currently circulating omicron strains,” the analysis said.

As per Germany’s most prominent virologist Christian Drosten, there’s also concern that China, where the zero-covid policy has limited contagion to date, could spawn a new variant if infections take hold and there is a huge surge in cases.

The Covid-19 vaccination cover in China is not high among the elderly and the country has exclusively used shots made domestically that haven’t proved as effective as the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna.

China is now the only major country still trying to stop transmission of the virus that was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The country posted record-high coronavirus infections on Monday with the number of new daily cases rising to 40,347, including 36,525 with no symptoms. It’s capital city Beijing reported 2,086 new local Covid-19 cases for the 15 hours to 3 pm (0700 GMT) today.

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