Revisiting COVID-19 Mortality and Emerging Viral Variants Over Three Painful Years

February 15, 2024

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As 2023 begins, the world remains firmly in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic that emerged suddenly three years prior. While vaccines, improved treatments, and some natural immunity buildup brought hopes of ending the outbreak in 2022, viral evolution and persistence shattered those aspirations by continuing to fill hospital wards and Take Lives at troubling rates globally. Reviewing COVID-19 deaths demographics along with the latest notorious SARS-CoV-2 variants offers critical insight into where the pandemic stands and what may await through future surges.

COVID-19 Proves Especially Deadly for Vulnerable Groups

Over 6.6 million COVID-19 deaths have been reported worldwide as of January 2023 according to the World Health Organization. However, true mortality is estimated to exceed 15 million when accounting for unconfirmed infections and collateral fatalities stemming from healthcare system strains.

In the United States, over 1 million deaths attributable to COVID-19 have occurred to date – representing about 0.3% of the national population. The virus has ultimately proved most deadly for certain higher risk demographics:

By Age:

  • Over 80% of deaths are among those 65+ years old in America
  • Those 85+ demonstrated a startling 90 times higher mortality rate than 5-17 year-olds

By Comorbidities:

  • Death risk rises over 10-fold for those with conditions like diabetes, COPD, heart disease, obesity

By Race/Ethnicity:

  • Age-adjusted mortality hit Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black groups much harder relative to Whites and Asians

By Geo-Location:

  • Poorer Southern US states suffered disproportionate fatality burdens

So while COVID-19 can kill healthy young people, Preventable Loss Of Life concentrates heavily among populations where age, health status, healthcare access, living conditions, and genetics increase vulnerability.

SARS-CoV-2 Variants Drive Repeated Infection Waves

The principal driver of COVID-19’s periodic resurgence is the emergence of new “variants”: Viral strains exhibiting crucial mutations altering dynamics like infectiousness, disease severity, reinfection risk relative to prior variants, and immunity evasion.

Several have sparked new pandemic waves after displacing formerly dominant strains:

  • Alpha – Up to 50% more transmissible than original virus
  • Delta – Roughly twice as contagious as Alpha
  • Omicron – At least 3X more infectious than Delta with increased reinfection capacity

And intensive global sequencing surveillance aims to rapidly identify and characterize new Potentially dangerous variants.

Omicron remains the global leader today, but its extreme infectivity produced over 30 recognized Omicron “subvariants” appearing through 2022 into 2023 – including notably immunoevasive and virulent strains like BA.5, BQ.1.1, XBB, and now XBB.1.5.

So far though, Omicron and subtypes Trigger comparatively less severe disease relative to prior dominant variants like Delta. But their heightened inflectiousness still maintains strained healthcare systems in many regions.

Long-Term COVID-19 Uncertainties

Several key questions linger that will shape pandemic dynamics and death tolls long-term:

Will COVID-19 become “Endemic” like influenza?

If SARS-CoV-2 settles into predictable seasonal circulation patterns enabling some population immunity between waves, then yearly variant-specific vaccine boosters could prevent healthcare collapses without extreme interventions.

What are implications of Long COVID not resolved yet?

Growing data confirms that infection often causes hard to treat months-to-years of fatigue, breathing difficulty, heart issues, and neurological dysfunction. These post-viral syndromes themselves also likely Take Lives through time.

Can vaccines advance fast enough to get ahead of variants and waning immunity?

The challenge remains developing bivalent/multivalent vaccine boosters targeting current and probable next dominant strains faster than they displace predecessor variants and evade prior immune memory. So far, vaccine makers struggle matching the virus’s mutational nimbleness.

In essence, with SARS-CoV-2’s ongoing evolutionary prowess generating fitter descendants, combined with short-lived immunity requiring regular boosting, COVID-19 presents an open-ended crisis still lacking definitive solutions.

Frequently Asked Questions About Ongoing COVID-19 Mortality and Variant Risks

How many total deaths have been caused by COVID-19 to date?

Over 6.6 million confirmed COVID-19 deaths occurred globally through start of 2023, with estimates exceeding 15 million deaths overall when accounting for undercounting and pandemic disruptions worsening other diseases.

What populations face the highest mortality risk from COVID-19?

The elderly, those with chronic illnesses, disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups, those in poverty, and residents of regions with poor healthcare access demonstrate significantly elevated COVID-19 mortality rates.

Why does SARS-CoV-2 continue evolving into concerning new variants?

As an error-prone RNA virus, random mutations arise in SARS-CoV-2’s genome as it circulates through millions of individuals. Variants carrying changes enhancing infectiousness or immune evasion come to displace predecessors.

Can we expect to see further dangerous COVID-19 case surges driven by new variants?

Yes, as long as large unvaccinated/non-boosted populations globally enable ongoing high transmission rates, new variants capable of evading prior immune defenses will likely continue emerging and igniting fresh waves.

What key knowledge gaps around COVID-19 remain?

Many open questions persist surrounding long COVID prevalence, effectiveness of multivalent vaccines targeting multiple strains, viral mutation rates, future endemic equilibrium, and timeline to transition fully out of pandemic crisis response mode.

Key Takeaways

  • Over 6.6 million confirmed global deaths occurred, but estimated all-cause excess mortality exceeds 15 million.
  • Age, preexisting conditions, race, socioeconomics, and geography drive COVID-19 mortality disparities.
  • Concerning viral variants have repeatedly caused new pandemic waves by exploiting waning immunity.
  • Long COVID syndromes may ultimately kill many infected individuals over years.
  • With vaccines perpetually lagging variants, and immunity fading without boosting, no clear endpoint is in sight.

Almost three exhaustive years on, the COVID-19 pandemic maintains fierce momentum with viral evolution continually pressing advantages against sluggish human countermeasures. Until population-level immunity is made more durable to block chains of transmission more fully, SARS-CoV-2 will likely keep claiming Lives through fresh seasonal surges stacked atop the carnage this virus has already wrought.

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