Relaxing pandemic restrictions may lead to vaccine-resistant COVID variants, experts warn

NORWICH, United Kingdom — After a year in quarantine, it’s no secret most people are getting antsy for the pandemic to end. Unfortunately, a new report warns that it isn’t time yet to relax safety precautions. Researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Earlham Institute report that relaxing COVID restrictions during this pivotal time in the fight against the coronavirus may lead to the emergence of new vaccine-resistant virus mutations.

Due to rising cases all over the world, the authors say humanity is currently in an “arms race” with SARS-CoV-2 that presents a big opportunity for the virus to evolve into even more easily transmissible variants. Researchers fear that the next variants will likely be more contagious, more vaccine-resistant, and more harmful to children and other vulnerable groups such as the elderly or transplant patients.

“Over the past 17 months, economies, education and mental well-being have suffered tremendously due to the restrictions imposed in an attempt to stem the spread of the pandemic,” lead author Prof. Kevin Tyler from UEA’s Norwich Medical School says in a university release. “Although vaccines have weakened the link between infection and mortality, they should not be used as an argument to justify a broad change in policy for countries experiencing an exponential increase in infection numbers.”

“This is because most of the world’s population are still unvaccinated, and even in countries with efficient vaccination programs, a significant proportion of society, particularly children, remain unprotected,” he adds. “Relaxing restrictions boosts transmission and allows the virus population to expand, which enhances its adaptive evolutionary potential and increases the risk of vaccine-resistant strains emerging by a process known as antigenic drift.”

To put researchers’ argument succinctly, it’s absolutely imperative to continue to limit the spread of COVID as much as possible. Doing so will reduce the number of future deaths by stopping new variants before they have a chance to emerge.

Children may be at risk from new variants

As the pandemic drags on, older variants continue to give way to newer versions of the coronavirus. Months ago everyone was talking about the Alpha variant, while today the Delta variant dominates headlines. In order to effectively stop or at least the slow the development of these new variants, researchers speculate it may be necessary to start vaccinating children.

“In most cases, children are not vaccinated against COVID-19 because the risk to them becoming seriously ill is very low. But new strains may evolve with higher transmissibility in children, and vaccinating children may become necessary to control the emergence of new variants,” Prof. Tyler comments. “In other words, a policy of relaxing restrictions while children are not vaccinated, risks inadvertently selecting for virulent variants that are better able to infect children and are also more problematic in vulnerable groups.”

The idea of vaccinating kids may sound radical right now, considering the vast majority don’t experience severe COVID symptoms. However, Prof. Tyler stresses that doesn’t necessarily mean children will be immune to all future variants.

Children may be particularly at risk because they are the only group that has remained unvaccinated. But there is no guarantee that the virus won’t evolve the ability to infect children too, and the data shows that new variants are relatively more often found in younger age groups,” he explains.

Relaxing restrictions in the middle of the COVID fight?

Meanwhile, co-author and evolutionary biologist Prof. Cock Van Oosterhout from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences expands on his arms race analogy.

“On the human side, the arms race is fought with vaccines, new technology such as the NHS COVID-19 App, and our behavioral change, but the virus fights back by adapting and evolving. It is unlikely we will get ahead in this arms race unless we can significantly reduce the population size of the virus,” Van Oosterhout says. “But given that the infection rate is about the same now as it was during the first wave, we are pretty much ‘at evens’ with this virus.”

Essentially, what Prof. Van Oosterhout is saying is that relaxing COVID restrictions right now would be akin to a boxer putting his hands at his sides mid-round. We’re still very much engaged in a fight with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and now is not the time to take a breath.

“This is what evolutionary biologists mean when we say that coevolution is a ‘zero-sum game’. But what you cannot do is suddenly drop your guard in the middle of an arms race. That gives your opponent – the virus – a real advantage. So we must continue doing the things we have been doing for the past 18 months, particularly in countries where the number of infected people is increasing,” he continues.

So, what should happen next?

In Prof Van Oosterhout’s opinion, most countries should actually enact stricter restrictions now.

“Entrusting public health measures to personal responsibility is a laissez-faire approach that many governments are now taking towards COVID-19 management,” he explains. “During exponential transmission of virus, we need an ongoing, mandatory public health policy that includes social distancing and the compulsory wearing of facemasks in crowded indoor spaces such as shops and on public transport.

Only once the R number is below 1.0 should safety restrictions end, Prof. Van Oosterhout concludes.

“When we weigh up the benefits and risks in vaccinating young people, we have to consider the impact on wider society too. The current approach to protecting young people seems to be letting them reach herd immunity through infection. Every day that approach continues, we give the virus the upper hand and prolong this pandemic – increasing the burden on healthcare systems and economies,” concludes co-author Prof. Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute.

The article appears in the journal Virulence.

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