A new mutant strain of Covid-19 that has sparked fears for vaccine resistance, caused flight cancellations, and sent the stock market plummeting could actually help bring the pandemic to an end, a Russian virologist has claimed.
In an interview published on Monday in Moscow tabloid KP, Anatoly Altshtein, a virologist at the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, which pioneered Russia’s Sputnik V jab, said that there it is still not clear how deadly or infectious the new Omicron variant might be. According to him, even if it does spread faster than its predecessor, known as Delta, it could take months to become the predominant form of the virus.
Even if that happens, he said, it’s not clear that Omicron means higher death tolls than at present. “Right now there are reasons to think that the Omicron variant could be less pathogenic,” he went on, meaning less able to cause harmful infection.
Explaining the science behind the hypothesis, Altshtein said that “we already see Omicron has many mutations, more than Delta. More than thirty in a single gene of its spike protein. This is too many, and it means the virus has an unstable genome. As a rule, this sort of infectious agent becomes less dangerous, because evolutionarily, an overwhelming number of mutations leads to a weakening of the virus’s ability to cause disease.”
According to the professor, if this rule holds true, then Omicron would be fatal in only a small fraction of cases, and would become like other common seasonal infections.
He stressed that we still understand little about the new variant, discovered by South African scientists last week, and that it was best to be cautious while its characteristics are researched.
Some nations, including Japan and Israel, have announced they are banning all foreign travelers.
“We shouldn’t be afraid that the Omicron variant is spreading widely,” said Professor Altshtein, “but that it could turn out to be the most pathogenic variant, making infection worse.”
Russia has registered a record number of Covid-19 deaths almost every day for several weeks, as the country grapples with a sharp rise in cases. The government has said that the rising mortality rate is due to the fact only around 40% of the population has been vaccinated, urging citizens to sign up for jabs. The country’s parliament is now considering proposals to mandate proof of vaccination for those using public transport, eating in restaurants and cafes or attending mass events nationwide.