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Will a new COVID-19 variant drive a winter surge in cases?

Experts warn new variant could emerge and ‘make everything else extinct’

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Kariann Atkin checks the registration information of clients during the Big Brother Big Sister’s Holiday Drive Thru at a parking lot in Taylorsville on Dec. 10, 2020. During the event, Littles (youth living in adversity), their Bigs (volunteer mentors) and their families were invited to pick up warm winter coats along with various treats.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Some experts are warning a new COVID-19 variant could emerge and spark a surge in cases this winter.

“We should not be surprised” if that happens, Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a virtual event Monday with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. “We should anticipate that we very well may get another variant that would emerge that would elude the immune response that we’ve gotten from infection and/or from vaccination.”

And a virologist at Imperial College London in England, Tom Peacock, expressed a similar concern in an interview posted Thursday by STAT, a Boston-based medical journalism publication.

“We’re also coming up to the one-year anniversary of omicron, so something else could come and just make everything else extinct,” Peacock said. “We should never forget that SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) has done that once, and can absolutely do it again.”

Peacock said while “everyone’s looking at these minute changes in all these sublineages” of COVID-19, “suddenly Pi comes through and torpedoes the whole lot,” a reference to the next letter in the Greek alphabet, that presumably would be the name of the next major variant.

Fauci, who is set to step down at the end of the year as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, advised caution as the season changes even though COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have dropped nationwide over the past few months — and Biden’s declaration that the pandemic is over.

“I think it would be a bit cavalier to all of a sudden say, ‘We’re completely through with it,’” Fauci said. “Because remember, we were going in the right direction in the summer of 2021 and then along came delta (a variant of COVID-19). Then in the winter, November-December of 2021, along came omicron.”

Since then, a string of new omicron strains have continued to surface, including the BA.5 subvariant that continues to dominate U.S. cases but appears to have peaked in early September as other versions of the virus rise. The recently approved updated COVID-19 booster shot targets BA.5 and another subvariant on the decline, BA.4.

“Right now, it looks like we’re going in the right direction. However, we are entering into the winter months, where no matter what the respiratory disease is, there’s always a risk of an uptick,” Fauci said, especially given the “creeping up” of new omicron subvariants already spreading in other countries.

“We can’t let our guard down,” he said, calling it “entirely conceivable” that cases could climb high enough by the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays that masking at gatherings would be recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With cases headed back up in Europe, Peacock said some of the newer omicron subvariants seen there “may be the vanguard of this variant wave that we’re going to get over the winter, but that the really nasty ones are still at, what, a percentage point or a couple percentage points in prevalence.”

That means the worst is likely yet to come, the virologist from England said.

“So you have the first ones that will get replaced as the wave comes through by these nastier ones that are currently at lower prevalence,” Peacock said. “We could end up with a mix, and different countries end up with different mixes.”