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This is what scientists expect from the COVID virus in 2023

This is what scientists expect from the COVID virus in 2023

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2023 could be the year the world finally figures out how to live COVID. ok most on the world. Ironically, we will have Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus to thank for this.

Successive waves of infections from Omicron and its sub-variants starting in late 2021 have built up so much natural immunity in the human population that most countries are now in a good position to withstand new sub-variants. “I see the United States and most of the world gradually emerging from the acute phase of the pandemic,” Lawrence Gostin, a global health expert at Georgetown University, told The Daily Beast.

Yes, people will get sick when some new form of the virus becomes dominant. But thanks to their natural immunity, they probably won’t get a lot sick. And fresh infections will seed new antibodies, which will then extend the population’s natural immunity through the next wave of cases.

“However, the waves are going to get shallower and shallower and spread out like ripples in a lake,” Geoffrey Klausner, an epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, told The Daily Beast.

The exception to this hard-won natural protection is, of course, China. The only major country to have imposed strict lockdowns for most of last year, it lacks widespread natural immunity as a result. China may spend 2023 catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to antibodies to COVID.

The problem for China’s 1.4 billion people is that catching up means many people are contracting COVID without the strong protection that natural immunity provides. If 2023 is the first year in four years that most of the world can breathe easy even though SARS-CoV-2 is everywhere all the time, it might too be the year China really gets sick for the first time.

The world, minus China, gained its natural immunity the hard way – by catching COVID. Vaccines eased the pain, sure, but vaccine-induced antibodies don’t last forever. By the end of 2021, billions of jabs have been exhausted and boosters have just become available to most people. At the same time, many countries were lifting the last major restrictions on businesses, schools and travel. Then Omicron came along.

More portable than older variants but less heavy, the Omicron led to record cases in late 2021 and early 2022 – and spawned sub-variants such as the BA.2, BA.5 and BQ.1 which led to their own, smaller spikes in cases over the year.

But the overall trend in 2022 was toward fewer and fewer hospitalizations and deaths. In countries where people were returning to some version of normal and the virus was circulating, all those who were building up natural antibodies were doing their job.

It’s a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. “Natural immunity will be constantly renewed as the virus circulates widely, which will mean a population that will have significant levels of immunity over time,” Gostin explained.

We have been in the Omicron or sub-Omicron phase of variants for a long time. This must continue.

This protection gives us a glimmer of hope for 2023 and beyond. “Eventually, the cycles of repeated waves will progressively decline to a stable level of an endemic state with low transmission,” Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida’s Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research, told The Daily Beast. “The new variants will cause flare-ups, but I expect that given how strong natural immunity is, such spikes in cases will be small compared to Omicron, for example – and so easily managed.”

Just not in China, which until a few weeks ago was still imposing strict lockdowns. Widespread public protests, extremely rare in the authoritarian state, have put intense pressure on the ruling Chinese Communist Party since late November. On December 7, the party lifted many of the restrictions.

Epidemiologists have warned that suddenly lifting the lockdown in a country that has not built up much natural immunity – and where vaccination rates are low for the most vulnerable part of the population, the elderly – could spell disaster as severe infections overwhelm hospitals.

Just a few weeks later, they have already been proven. Big outbreak in Beijing forced local authorities to reinstate some of the restrictions they had just lifted. But reverting to unpopular lockdowns only delays the inevitable.

The Chinese want to go back to normal. They will need natural antibodies to get there. But natural antibodies only come from infections. And these infections—potentially tens of millions of them—could define China’s 2023.

However, the rest of the world could have its most normal year since 2020. This is the reward for suffering from Omicron and his descendants. If there’s a possible spoiler, it’s that SARS-CoV-2 can be unpredictable.

As the virus circulates, it mutates. For more than a year, the mutations have produced Omicron sub-variants that reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and, in the case of the latest BQ sub-variants, render monoclonal antibody therapies completely ineffective. But they haven’t escaped our natural antibodies.

Klausner, for one, doesn’t expect that to change. “There can be many different types of subvariants and not have dramatic changes. We have been in the Omicron or sub-Omicron phase of variants for a long time. This must continue.”

If it doesn’t and some new variant or sub-variant emerges that evades our natural antibodies, the whole world, not just China, will have to endure waves of infections without protection of natural immunity. This is how the dream of a normal 2023 could turn into a nightmare.


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