Here we are again being attacked by persistent and mutated COVID-19 strains called BA.5, a new variant from Omicron. What is clear is that this new variant is spreading rapidly, likely because it bypasses some of the immune defences acquired by people who have been vaccinated, or those infected with previous strains.
Perhaps those who have managed to avoid the virus for nearly three years will find it a little more difficult to continue in that streak, people should not be surprised if they become infected, nor should they be surprised if it becomes troublesome for some time!
What matters to us so far is that vaccines are still keeping many people away from hospitals and intensive care units, and perhaps the new strain is not terribly dangerous, but we cannot ignore it either.
Infection (and re-infection) is still present and this undoubtedly widens and deepens the ongoing burden of the pandemic. I may think here that – as we have previously noted during the stages of the pandemic – we will not prevent all cases of transmission, but rather we must reduce the spread.
On the other hand, we must be aware that when people are vaccinated or infected with the virus, our bodies develop antibodies that can neutralize the virus by sticking to its thorny proteins – the struts on its surface that – if you can say – the pathogen uses to identify and infect our cells. Unfortunately, these strains, such as BA5 have many mutations that change the shape of the protrusions, which is like swords that no longer fit their sheathing, and are now unrecognizable by the many antibodies that would have disarmed the previous strain!
This probably means that most people are now less protected from infection than they were two months ago and even some people who have had corona (covid-19) recently may be infected again now.
Yet infection prevention is still important and vaccinations are still a critical way to do so. Of course, vaccines will not eliminate the epidemic on their own, they need to be supplemented by other preventive measures such as masks, improved ventilation, and rapid tests. Therefore, the belief that viruses inevitably evolve into milder versions may be incorrect, perhaps in future decades, but they are not guaranteed in any way. Corona strains can even develop into more severe forms, although vaccines can still be expected to soften their bite.
So at this point, is it possible that the virus is now constrained by the human immune system in a perpetual evolutionary arms race? What I mean here is after this human viral conflict, the emergence of a mutant that circumvents our current immunity and then vaccines and infections gradually rebuild our defences... and so on until another mutant appears. From here, humanity and somehow - if I can say – is waiting for that comprehensive vaccine for Corona strains and it will be the saviour!
In conclusion, the bets in this game really depend on a very simple question: Do we still care about preventing infection? And most importantly, our realization that the idea of coexistence with Corona may continue. However, can we play such a game seriously or lose repeatedly!
Dr Yousuf Ali Al Mulla is a physician, medical innovator and a writer.