Experts: COVID-19 variants, variables still a cause for concern 21 months later

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Posted at 6:07 PM, Dec 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 19:59:44-05

The Omicron variant's quick global spread has prompted Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District officials to resume holding COVID-19 updates over the last two weeks.

During Wednesday's meeting, Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo said it's just a matter of time until the Omicron variant is detected in Nueces county.

Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales also warned residents to prepare for the most recently detected variant of concern, and to get vaccinated.

Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health Director Annette Rodriguez went as a far as to say the variant could bring a fourth wave of COVID-19 to the area.

They're warnings and pieces of advice the area has heard over the last year and a half, to the point where they've lost meaning for some.

Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District's Local Health Authority Dr. Srikanth Ramachandruni said Thursday that just because the message is the same it doesn't make it any less important or relevant.

"The reason why everybody's worried is, of course, we have a lot of mutations in the spike protein — more than 30 mutations compared to the Delta — so the spike protein is the one we make vaccine against," said Ramachandruni. "So everybody is worried: 'OK, these spike protein changes could make a vaccine less effective,' or maybe this could be more lethal. You know, the virus itself."


So far there is no evidence that either is the case with the Omicron variant, but because the coronavirus originally detected globally at the end of 2019 is considered "novel," or new, not enough is known about it to be able to accurately predict how it will act when it mutates.

"Ultimately, the whole reason for this huge public-health effort — why COVID's different than the average everyday flu — is because it's novel," said Texas A&M-Corpus Christi researcher Christopher Bird. "Because there's not a lot of immunity in the community from it, it can overwhelm our hospitals and that's what we're concerned about with this next wave is: 'How much of a load will it put on our hospitals?" We don't know the answers to that yet."

By definition, each variant of COVID-19 comes with mutations unseen in previous variations. Viruses regenerate to stay alive, and in that regeneration process, mistakes can be made, causing mutations. For example, the original COVID-19 virus mutated, becoming the Alpha variant; Alpha became Beta; Beta became Delta in the same way because the mutations compounded.

We've all seen the visual representation of the COVID-19 virus: a ball with suction-cup-looking appendages protruding from it. Those appendages represent what are called spike proteins: These spike proteins allow the COVID-19 virus to bind to our cells and infect us.

"The COVID and flu are totally different viruses altogether, because of the way it attaches to the cells, the way the receptors are different — the ACE receptors are different, the flu receptors are different — and flu is very much limited to the lungs, whereas COVID goes all over the body," he said. "It can go to the blood vessels and attach those receptors all over the blood vessels."

He said this is the reason that COVID-19 patients can experience complications across multiple organ systems, such as inflammation of the heart, kidneys, brain, and other fatigue- and hormone-related issues.

"Our immune system sometimes overreacts and causes immune-related damage to the lungs and other organs because it's trying to attack the virus and then, by mistake, it also attacks our own organs, and that's the major problem with the COVID compared to the flu," he said. "In the flu, our body doesn't overreact as much as COVID does."

Like with previous variants of the novel coronavirus, more information is needed. Unfortunately, that information only is gathered by examining infected patients, monitoring hospitalized patients, and examining patients who died of the virus.

"We don't know how bad it is at this point," Ramachandruni said. "We need to see more hospitalizations, deaths that we could specifically attribute to Omicron."

So far, the Delta variant still is the dominant strain in the United States. Bird said Wednesday that more than six months after its initial detection, more than 99 percent of all COVID-19 infections are Delta-variant infections.

"Delta is still dominant all over the world, so Omicron hasn't replaced the Delta yet," Ramachandruni said. "If Omicron is less lethal, then it is a good thing."