As Quebec goes through its sixth wave and two new Omicron subvariants are monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO), there is reason to wonder if the pandemic will ever end. Should we expect to see variants (and sub-variants) appear until the end of time?
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There may not be “until the end of time”, indicates Alain Lamarre, immunologist and virologist at the National Institute for Scientific Research (INRS), but it is to be expected that the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate and other variants emerge. It’s in his nature.
But since the process of natural selection also applies to variants of a virus, some infect less and die a natural death, while others prove to be more contagious and can therefore replicate all over the world.
“It’s in the biology of the virus. When it replicates, it makes mistakes that can lead to the appearance of variants. Some are eliminated, but others find themselves with an advantage over others, either in terms of transmission or in terms of immunity evasion,” he explains.
The future difficult to predict
The unpredictable nature of mutations makes it very difficult to predict what awaits us in the coming months and years, notes Benoit Barbeau, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at UQAM and virologist.
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“The question is: how infectious, transmissible is it able to remain? After the fact, it’s how much these changes can make it better equipped to resist the immune response in someone who has been vaccinated and who has just been infected, ”he says.
A recently published study could give a glimpse of a certain glimmer of hope, mentions the virologist. Signs of limitation in the ability to change of the virus would indeed begin to be observed. “As long as we do not see what will happen on the ground, we will not be able to establish it”, however warns Benoit Barbeau.
Vaccination is the key
Knowing this, how do we ensure that variants that are contagious enough to spread widely do not cause large waves of infection? It’s always the same refrain: the key is, again and again, vaccination on a planetary scale.
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“The best, most effective way is really vaccination and I think that as long as there are places on the planet where we have insufficient vaccination coverage, the virus will continue to circulate, mutate and come. annoy countries where vaccination is advanced”, confirms Alain Lamarre.
While nearly 65% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, that proportion drops to 14.8% for low-income countries, according to a compilation of data from Our World in Data.
The stranglehold of rich countries on precious doses mainly explains these disparities in vaccination coverage.
“It does not mean that once the entire population is vaccinated that we will not have variants, it will surely happen, but at a lower level. The more we are able to vaccinate on a planetary scale, the more we will have a grip on the virus, without saying that we will have succeeded in defeating it completely”, specifies in turn the professor.
Rethinking the vaccine
Both experts agree that it is time to develop new variant-tailored vaccines, as those currently being administered are based on the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, which is not even in circulation anymore.
“Instead of always having the surface protein as the target, which itself mutates a lot, we could choose other regions of the virus which are more constant on the one hand. [variant] to another to induce protection on a larger scale,” suggests Alain Lamarre.
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But, as François Legault likes to repeat, you have to learn to live with the virus and its mutations, adds Benoit Barbeau.
“You have to be aware that it is circulating, adopt different behaviors when you face a wave, but, above all, make sure that you use the tools you have wisely. We must rethink the composition and method of administration of vaccines to have greater representativeness of the different variants,” he concludes.
— With Geneviève Abran