Infectious disease expert speaks on COVID-19 variants and what’s to come

Infectious disease expert speaks on COVID-19 variants and what’s to come
Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 10:19 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - We’ve seen a number of different COVID-19 variants throughout the pandemic, most recently Delta and Omicron.

It begs the question - will the virus continue mutating into different forms?

WLBT asked Dr. Steve Threlkeld, Baptist Memorial Health Care’s Medical Director for Infectious Disease, for his thoughts.

“Variants are nothing more than spelling errors when it makes copies of itself, and some of them turn out not to be viable even to continue,” Dr. Threlkeld said. ”Every now and then, one lines up and can be more deadly or more contagious or more able to evade our immune system.”

Threlkeld said there’s three ways viruses can hurt us: they can be more contagious, they can evade our immune system more efficiently, and they can be more severe.

“Omicron checks two of those boxes very nicely,” he said. “Thankfully, it does not knock over the domino for virulence or deadly characteristic.”

That’s exactly why Omicron overtook Delta as the dominant strain of coronavirus in less than three weeks.

“Viruses don’t just compete with our immune systems, they compete with each other to get to our immune systems,” he said. “So it took Omicron to knock Delta off the hill, and it would take another variant that would have to be pretty contagious or very effective at avoiding our immune system - regardless of how severe it is.”

So you might be wondering, what’s to come?

“We hope that over time, we will get to less and less and less severe variants here,” Threlkeld said. “There’s no advantage for a virus to kill its victims quickly because then they don’t have time to go give it to somebody else. So evolutionarily, it’s not necessarily best for a virus to be more and more deadly.”

But Threlkeld said that’s the sort of thing that happens over centuries, not necessarily over a year or two, so there’s no clear reason why the next variant couldn’t be more deadly.

Luckily, he said we can keep that from happening.

“The way to avoid that is to get everybody vaccinated really all around the world because how many times do you have to see that when something happens in South Africa, or China, or Brazil, or wherever you’re talking about, it can get here very quickly,” he said.

The state health department’s latest numbers say 48% of Mississippians are fully vaccinated, trailing the national average by 14%.

The department offers free vaccines to people five and older all over the state. Click on this link to schedule an appointment.

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