More COVID Variants Coming After Omicron, WHO Expert Warns

There is no certainty that COVID variants will get milder over time and future ones could prove even more severe than Delta was, scientists have said as COVID restrictions are loosened in many regions.

Countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. are looking to relax COVID rules as cases have fallen consistently in recent weeks.

Last week, officials in multiple U.S. states announced that indoor mask mandates would be lifted while U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said people in England would no longer have to isolate even if they tested positive for COVID from the end of February.

Both nations have seen a significant drop in recorded COVID cases this month. On February 11, the seven-day moving average of new cases in the U.S. was just over 175,000, down from just over 309,000 seven days prior, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows.

In the U.K., the number of reported positive tests in the seven days prior to February 13 had fallen by over 30 percent compared with the previous seven-day period, according to government data.

However, David Nabarro, a special envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization (WHO,) told The Guardian newspaper that the pandemic still "has a long way to go."

"There will be more variants after Omicron and if they are more transmissible they will dominate," he said. "In addition, they may cause different patterns of illness. In other words, they may turn out to be more lethal or have more long-term consequences."

The point was echoed by Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University in the U.K., who said there seems to be a belief that all COVID variants spawned from each other and get milder over time. In fact, they may come from completely different parts of the SARS-CoV-2 family tree.

"The idea that virus variants will continue to get milder is wrong," Young told The Guardian. "A new one could turn out to be even more pathogenic than the Delta variant, for example."

Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, told Newsweek that people have grown weary about restrictions including masks but said he was concerned about "complacency" as the U.S. increasingly decides it no longer needs them, which would "[make] it harder to take action when the next variant comes along."

At the same time, some experts and leaders are hopeful that the pandemic is now approaching a new phase.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said the country is "certainly heading out" of the pandemic phase of COVID and that any societal restrictions to control the virus would increasingly be made on a local level rather than centrally mandated.

In a press conference last month, Denmark's prime minister Mette Frederiksen said that the country would no longer categorize COVID as a "socially critical disease" and added: "The pandemic is still here. But with what we know now, we who stand here dare to believe that we are through the critical phase."

On February 11, CDC data appeared to show that the seven-day moving average of new COVID deaths in the U.S. had been decreasing over the previous few days, though it remained higher than at any point during the summer of 2021.

Face mask on fence
A photo of a face mask, apparently discarded, hanging on a fence in New York City in May, 2020. Several states have recently announced that COVID mask rules will be loosened. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty