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Swiss scientist warns of possible Covid ‘super strain’

Just over half of the Swiss population have been fully vaccinated (two doses) against the virus. Keystone / Christian Merz

A researcher at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich has warned of the possible emergence of a new "super variant" of the coronavirus that could combine existing strains.

This content was published on August 22, 2021 - 12:10
Keystone-SDA/SonntagsBlick/sb

“It is very likely that a new variant will emerge and that we will no longer be able to rely on vaccinations alone,” immunologist Sai Reddy told the SonntagsBlick newspaper.

Such a new variant would definitely reach Switzerland, said Reddy, who works as an associate professor at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering of the federal technology institute ETH Zurich in Basel.

“That's why we have to prepare for several vaccinations over the next few years, which will be continuously adapted to new variants,” the 40-year-old scientist told the paper.

He pointed to coronavirus variants from South Africa (Beta) and Brazil (Gamma) that have mutated, allowing them to partially evade antibodies. Delta, on the other hand, is much more contagious, but has not yet developed such mutations.

“If Beta or Gamma becomes more contagious, or if Delta develops mutations, then we could be talking about a new phase of the pandemic," said Reddy. “This would become the big problem of the coming year. Covid-22 could be even worse than what we are experiencing now."

Rising cases

Since the end of June, the number of new reported coronavirus infections has been rising in Switzerland. Hospital admissions are also increasing, but the death rate remains low. Just over 50% of the population are vaccinated against the virus.

The growth in new cases is largely due to the highly infectious Delta variant affecting unvaccinated people, mainly in the 10-to-29-year-old age group. In an interview this week, Tanja Stadler, the new head of Switzerland’s Covid-19 science taskforce, said the current virus situation was “very difficult”.

Reddy said he expects new Covid cases to rise further in Switzerland this autumn.

“If the vaccination rate does not increase rapidly, only severe restrictive measures can prevent the worst from occurring,” he said.

He noted that recent scientific findings show that the viral load of the Delta variant is so high that any unvaccinated person who contracts it can become a "super-spreader".

“Since children under 12 cannot be vaccinated, they represent a large group of potential super-spreaders,” said Reddy.

The Delta variant can get around vaccinations partly because of its very high viral load, he noted.  

“We need to counter this with a high level of antibodies, and that is exactly what a third booster dose of vaccine does,” he said.

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