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Experts say variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 replicate quicker in people who are not vaccinated. David McNew/Getty Images
  • Experts say the number of unvaccinated people in the United States is a key reason coronavirus variants are emerging.
  • They explain that the virus replicates quicker in unvaccinated people, increasing the chance of mutations.
  • They’re concerned that new COVID-19 cases will continue to rise as variants spread and people still refuse to get vaccinated.

Chances are, the coronavirus variant known as Epsilon might not be on your radar, but scientists sure are watching it.

First discovered in California last December, it’s now spreading in Pakistan.

“This is worrisome, as it is more transmissible than original strains of the virus,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network in New York City.

She added, “there is some early evidence” that the variant could be resistant to the vaccines.

So far, scientists in the United States say COVID-19 vaccines seem to be holding up against a new crop of variants that include Gamma, Lambda, Delta Plus, and even the Delta variant that’s responsible for 90 percent of new cases in the country.

But some experts are worried the clock is ticking.

“It’s perhaps just a matter of time,” said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of medicine, infectious diseases, and virology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Let’s say, hypothetically, that a new variant could emerge where we won’t be so fortunate, and the existing vaccines won’t work,” Saag explained to Healthline.

“I call that hypothetical variant Omega. That’s the one we’re all fearing. It hasn’t happened yet, and we hope it doesn’t. But the longer this goes on with widespread transmission, the possibility increases with time,” he said.

The White House COVID-19 Response Team noted that more than 165 million Americans are fully vaccinated.

However, there are still about 90 million who are eligible to be vaccinated but haven’t been.

Experts say the uptick in COVID-19 cases is happening largely because of the number of people who remain unvaccinated.

“They play a huge role. If everyone is vaccinated, eventually infections drop to zero and so do variants,“ Parikh said. “But if the virus has an easy host, such as an unvaccinated individual, then it is easy for it to mutate into a more contagious and virulent form.”

One of the key characteristics of the coronavirus is the spike protein that allows it to latch onto a host cell, penetrate it, and cause an infection.

That spike is what vaccines target to block the virus.

In the unvaccinated, however, the virus gets in, hijacks the cell, and turns it into a factory. It then makes thousands of copies of itself. If there’s a copying mistake or error, scientists call that a mutation.

Occasionally, a mutation can help the virus get into the body’s cells more easily. When mutations accumulate over time, new variants of a virus strain emerge.

The Delta variant has outpaced all its rivals by reproducing itself quicker and in larger numbers. Scientists say that makes it more highly contagious.

Another complication has surfaced: Scientists say unvaccinated parents are bringing the virus home to their children. Pediatricians say cases are rising and children’s hospitals are seeing a spike in children needing care.

Children under age 12 aren’t currently eligible for a vaccine. And, as schools are opening — some with minimal COVID-19 safety protocols — experts fear it’s only going to get worse.

A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that large numbers of unvaccinated people still don’t want the vaccine.

Among adults, 35 percent said they probably won’t get vaccinated and 45 percent said they definitely won’t.

The poll also showed unvaccinated people have little to no confidence in the vaccines, despite the fact that nearly all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are now among the unvaccinated.

Doctors predict that could mean the current spike in the pandemic will get worse.

“I’m worried about the next 3 weeks. The projections I saw toward the end of June are that we would peak around Labor Day at a level two to three times worse than what we saw in January,” Saag said.

“We’re entering into a very dark phase,” he added. “We think we’ve been through that before, but I’m pretty confident, unfortunately, that this will be the worst we’ve seen. And we don’t know when it will end.”

“We’re screaming from the rafters as best we can to warn people,” said Saag. “These vaccines work extraordinarily well and are as safe as any vaccine we’ve ever seen. I don’t know what more we could look for.”