RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — We’re dealing with yet another COVID-19 variant that’s easy to catch and tough to contain.

Which raises a question: Why are so many new variants continuing to pop up?

First, there was the primary version of the virus. Then came the delta variant, followed by a series of omicron subvariants that each took its turn as the world’s dominant strain.

The latest of those is XBB.1.5, which doctors say has evolved to become even more infectious and evasive.

But are they really an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 vaccines, as a writer in the Wall Street Journal recently claimed?

THE CLAIM: The op-ed published by the Journal on Jan. 1 titled “Are Vaccines Fueling New Covid Variants?” argues that “growing evidence also suggests that repeated vaccinations may make people more susceptible to XBB and could be fueling the virus’ rapid evolution.”

THE FACTS: The author has it backward, a leading expert said: Vaccines don’t fuel those variants — unvaccinated people do.

“The virus is evolving because we keep transmitting it to each other,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Every unvaccinated person who catches COVID creates an opportunity for the virus to develop those mutations that then turn into new variants. If the virus can’t spread, it can’t mutate, and it’s not as easy for it to infect a vaccinated and boosted person.

“If you don’t catch COVID-19, you can’t then have virus replicating inside of you and then transmitted to others,” Wohl said.

“So no COVID-19, no forward transmission to other people, no opportunity for the virus to evolve and make mutants, no long COVID, no getting hooked up to life support,” he added. “That’s the whole idea. It’s a termination of a chain of events.”

The author of the piece, WSJ editorial board member Allysia Finley, said in an email responding to that criticism that she has “never opposed the COVID vaccines, but public health authorities need to be honest about their shortcomings — they simply do not prevent infection.”

It is true that the vaccines do put some evolutionary pressure on the virus, but that’s not exactly the same thing as saying they are responsible for the various variants.

As more people produce more antibodies, the viruses that develop resistance to those antibodies will perpetuate. Those that don’t will die off.

That’s a cornerstone principle of natural selection, and that’s why booster shots — specifically the bivalent booster that targets omicron strains — are so important, Wohl said.

“That doesn’t mean (the vaccines) don’t work. It just means they don’t work as well as they did against the original strain, because the virus is evolving,” Wohl said.

And every dominant strain for more than a year has been related to the original omicron variant — from BA.5 to, now, the XBB strain.

“That’s kind of good, in a way, too, because it means that maybe some of the immunity we do have against other strains of omicron does help us a bit against these newer strains,” Wohl said. “But again, the virus is evolving and we’ve given it lots of opportunities to evolve during this latest surge across the planet and here, evolving to evade whatever we throw at it.

“When a virus come in, our body reacts and the virus that can get around that will do best,” he added. “And again, that happens naturally.”

It’s one thing for an argument blaming the vaccines for variants to show up on a fringe website — and quite another for such a scientifically unsound view to be amplified by one of the country’s newspapers of record, with a circulation of nearly 4 million print and digital subscribers, according to statista.com.

“People have their opinion and they can interpret the data in different ways, but that’s a minority opinion, and it’s wrong,” Wohl said.

Joedy McCreary square

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.