Letter: Viruses can change over time

Over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot has happened: multiple variants emerged, with Omicron even having a sub-variant; restrictions have been set, lifted, and set again; and we have gone through the confusing transitions towards social distancing and online alternatives. Unfortunately, it’s also only part of the impact of the virus as to date almost 6 million have died from COVID-19, with another nearly half a billion having been infected, many of whom survived with permanent lasting effects. Compared to the influenza virus, with significantly more effective vaccinations for COVID-19 and numerous social distancing regulations, this is about a quarter of the number of cases per year, but still almost 10 times the number of deaths. That said, things seem to slowly be getting better; vaccination rates are increasing and COVID-19 related serious illness and hospitalization are decreasing as a result, there’s hope that things will continue to improve. However, there are also reasons to keep in mind that it could get worse.

Beyond the news that boosters wane in effectiveness quicker than would be preferred, there is the disturbing possibility that the next variant could be more dangerous than before. This doesn’t mean there is need to panic though; besides Delta (which was twice as likely to hospitalize people), COVID-19 variants have been stable in severity – though they have been increasingly transmissible. Paired with the effectiveness of vaccines against variants, odds are if the next variant is more dangerous we will still have a level of protection from it.

While not a reason to panic, the reality that a COVID-19 variant could become both deadlier and more transmissible is reason enough to to be aware, and it’s a reality that is driven home by a recent development with another globally present virus: HIV. Recently, a new variant of HIV that is more transmissible and severe has been discovered circulating in the Netherlands, where it has been for years (Broadfoot, 2022). This new development is a reminder that even viruses we have known and been dealing with for centuries can change in unexpected, and deadlier ways – a reminder best taken to heart when discussing the far faster changing COVID-19 virus.

Again, this isn’t cause for panic. That viruses change is something well known – it’s why there is a new flu vaccine every year. So far most COVID-19 variants have been less severe, and though the vaccines have not stayed at the 95% effectiveness, they continue to help mitigate the spread and severity of new variants. Hopefully things will continue this way, to the point where COVID-19 is nothing more than a new seasonal ‘flu’ – we just need to remember that if we’re not careful, things could get worse.

Austin Mardon is a recipient of the Order of Canada, is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Alberta, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Jonathan Wiebe is a student currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University.