Variant Worse Than Omicron Could Emerge, Says Medical Advisor Chris Whitty

A COVID variant that produces "worse problems" than Omicron could arise in the future, the U.K. government's chief medical adviser has said.

Speaking to attendees at the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health (LGA/ADPH) conference this week, top health expert Sir Chris Whitty warned that COVID is something that the world will have to live with for the foreseeable future after he was asked when the pandemic might shift to an endemic state.

Whitty said that the term "endemic"—which refers to a disease or condition being found regularly among particular people or in a certain area, rather than globally—is often misused.

"The pandemic is going to become, over time, less dominant steadily, but we're going to have a significant problem with it in multiple parts of the world for the rest of our lives," Whitty said in the conference, U.K. newspaper The i reported. "Let's have no illusions about that."

"I'm expecting it to be probably in the U.K. seasonal, but interspersed, at least for the next 2 to 3 years by new variants while it's still evolving essentially to adapt to humans, which may occur in between seasonal peaks."

Whitty said that "we could well end up with a new variant that produces worse problems than we've got with Omicron—and Omicron problems are not by any means trivial."

Variants of viruses such as COVID occur when there is a change or mutation in the genes of that virus, and such changes are expected with all viruses—some more than others. These changes can occur every time the virus makes copies of itself.

As evidence during the COVID pandemic, a variant that emerges in one country can quickly spread to others. The Omicron variant, for instance, was first identified in South Africa and Botswana in late 2021 and has gone on to become in the dominant variant in the U.S. and worldwide.

Indeed, Omicron is continuing to cause issues for countries across Europe including the U.K., Italy, and France as cases rise once again following a sharp winter surge.

The current rise in cases being experienced by some countries coincides with the spread of BA.2—an Omicron sub-type that is becoming increasingly prevalent compared to the original omicron BA.1 type which has generally been the dominant type over the past few months.

BA.2 does not appear to cause greater risk of hospitalization in humans than BA.1, nor does it appear more able to dodge vaccines, according to a U.K. technical briefing on March 11 and a vaccine report on March 17.

However, BA.2 does appear to have an increased growth rate of approximately 80 percent greater relative to BA.1 in England and is also capable of reinfecting people who have already caught Omicron before.

In the U.S., BA.2 was estimated to be present in just under 35 percent of COVID samples collected between March 13 and March 19, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—an increase from around 22 percent the week prior.

covid variant christ whitty
U.K. Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty pictured at Downing Street on November 15, 2021 in London. Omicron may not be the last COVID variant we see according to Whitty. Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images