Every time the Corona Virus replicates there is a very small chance that a mutation will occur. Each time a mutation does occur there is a very small chance that the mutation will result in a variant of the virus that is more dangerous to humans. Several “variants of concern” (VOC) have arisen that have illustrated this process. As of July 17, 2021 the CDC web site lists 4 such varients of concern. The one currently leading the pack in terms of a world-wide threat is the “Delta” variant. This variant spreads 225% faster than the original Coronavirus that appeared in December 2019 and January 2020 in Wuhan China. It also appears that existing vaccines are slightly less effective against this variant, and the resulting illness from this variant may be slightly more severe.
How Often do we get a new Variant of Concern?
The delta variant, the 4th VOC identified by the CDC, was first detected in December 2020. According to Worldometer.com (figure 1) the world had experienced over 83 million cases of infection by the end of December 2020.
So the first 83 million cases generated 4 variants of concern. That is about 1 VOC every 21 million cases. We have had over 100 million new cases since the discovery of the delta variant so don’t be surprised if a new one surfaces soon! Now there is no way to predict when and where variants will occur and perhaps it gets increasingly difficult to get a random mutation that makes the virus more dangerous, given the dangerousness of delta compared to the original strain. But there is already a new one in the running. Scientists are looking at what may become a VOC. The lambda variant which first appeared in Peru has spread to a number of other countries, including a few cases in the US. Also a few delta variant cases have arrived in Peru. So in the coming weeks we should see some real world “head to head” tests between delta and lambda. If lambda is more dangerous than delta, we would expect that the percent of lambda infections detected in the US will grow, and that the percentage of delta infections in Peru will not grow.
So far each of the current 4 VOC have been more infectious than the original strain, and some of them have appeared to have a higher percentage of infections that “escape” the existing vaccines. So in addition to vaccine hesitancy in the US, and continuing vaccine supply bottlenecks in the rest of the world, we also need to worry about new variants that might render our current vaccines less effective.
The continued pandemic feels like a huge game of Russian Roulette. We are playing with a gun with 21 millions chambers, only one of which has a bullet. Each day now, worldwide, we are putting the gun to our head and pulling the trigger 500,000 times. At that rate we empty the chambers once every 42 days.
In addition to protecting our own individual lives, getting the economy going, and getting back to something resembling “normal” we need to do everything we can to reduce the continued spread of the virus. Foremost that means getting vaccinated and increasing vaccine production for the rest of the world. But it also means continuing to exercise caution in how we interact. Mask wearing, social distancing, and minimizing unnecessary close contact with others will reduce the number of new cases and slow the rate at which we pull the trigger on the next variant of concern.