So, how worried should we be about those new covid variants? Quartz spoke with Shaun Truelove, an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to understand what’s happening now. Truelove is an infectious disease epidemiologist who co-leads coordination of the the covid scenario modeling hub, which creates long-term scenario projections in the US. The projections help decision makers determine the impacts of covid for the next four to six months.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Quartz: How much of an uptick are we seeing with the new covid variants in the US?
Shaun Truelove: It’s fairly substantial in terms of the uptick, but I will caveat that it is not necessarily the new variants that are driving it. We’re still somewhat unclear on what is driving it. The variant picture right now is really messy.
Throughout the pandemic, a new variant would evolve with some new property. Either it was more transmissible like the alpha and delta variants, or it had immunoescape [an ability to reinfect despite previous immunity] like the omicron variant. Those are very distinctive lineages that developed and then quickly took over. We are now getting lots of new variants; some are more dominant like EG.5, but they are not super distinctive. There’s a swarm of variants that all have similar characteristics and similar mutations, but a mix of different things.
It is not that we are seeing an omicron-like event where there’s a new variant coming in, driving up everything. Moving into the fall, a typical respiratory virus season, we’re seeing upticks in influenza and RSV starting, and covid too.
We haven’t had as long of a period without a peak throughout the entire pandemic. Our last peak was in December 2022. Previously, we were talking about peaks every five to six months where there would be a new wave of some form. Where we’re going to go this season in terms of scale is unclear, though I don’t think there’s a ton of evidence pointing to this being a particularly more severe season than previous seasons.
How much should people worry about new variants and their impacts?
I don’t think that people should necessarily worry about the variants themselves. The variants aren’t drastically different, but they do mean that people will continue to get infected and may get ill. Just like any virus, there are populations that are at more risk and who should be concerned. As with influenza, they should make sure they’re getting vaccinated and taking personal precautions like wearing masks.
The evidence points to the majority of people who have been infected multiple times, and been vaccinated multiple times, having mild illness. I don’t think we’re in a stage where there’s a need to shut down businesses and schools again due to worrying about a new variant.
There is deadliness, just like with other viruses, and those numbers will go up as the season progresses. We’re still experiencing 617 deaths per week right now, which is a lot of people. The people who are dying are more likely to be those who are at higher risk and are immunocompromised. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen to anyone—there are rare cases we shouldn’t ignore.
If the majority of people have been vaccinated, why are there more variants and infections?
Because the vaccine doesn’t last. The virus changes and immunity wanes. The virus continues to try to escape and develop. It develops new characteristics in order to enable itself to keep transmitting. So while our vaccine was effective a year ago, it was not developed for the current virus. There’s probably some protection against more severe symptoms. The new vaccines that are coming out will be reformulated and more appropriate for the variants circulating now.
We’re continuing to monitor how high-escaping the variants are. So far, there’s not a major extreme event; it’s more watching if the swarm of variants is more quickly or more slowly evolving. But it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that a divergent strain like omicron could happen—this virus continues to surprise us in its ability to change and adapt.
I think we are more in a reality that’s closer to how we deal with influenza. Of course that could change with any variant, but at the moment, I think we’re more toward that seasonal kind of situation.
Is there a chance that schools or businesses would have to consider lockdowns or shutdowns again?
It is a possibility, but I think the evidence points to that being a very low possibility. The evidence shows that we’ve been building immunity even with new divergent strains. Even with omicron, the immunity that people got from previous infections or vaccinations prevented severe illness substantially. It’s not out of possibility, but because of the level of immunity that is in the population from so many infections and vaccinations, it’s unlikely that we would get to something like lockdowns or shutdowns.
There’s not a very clear future in which there’s no coronavirus circulating. It’s more likely that it’s just part of the seasonal set of pathogens that we face and that will cause deaths, hospitalizations, and illnesses every year.
Do you recommend that people take precautions at this time?
I know people don’t want to do it, but masking works. The big thing people can do is if they’re feeling like they have symptoms, then don’t go to work, don’t send your sick kids to school. Wear a mask if you go to the grocery store; try not to infect other people.
If cases are ticking up in your area or if you’re going on a flight, it’s not a bad idea to wear a mask. I know it’s hard for people to go back to that, but that’s a big one we can do. Just individual control measures like washing your hands. Vaccination doesn’t last forever, but we know it has a huge impact, especially for people who are at higher risk of severe outcomes.