The latest variant of the omicron mutation, BA.5, has become the dominant strain and is causing a wave of cases throughout the country. In the past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a little over 100,000 new cases a day on average. However, infectious disease experts say that underestimates the actual number, which may be as many as a million because most people are testing at home or not at all.
The rise results from BA.5 being able to evade the immune system, making antibodies from vaccines or previous coronavirus infections ineffective. Per Dr. Egon Ozer, an infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the new variants have “a few more mutations in the spike protein” that make them more resistant to antibodies. Early data indicates that BA.5 has reinfected people who contracted earlier variants of Covid-19 in the winter or early spring and carried some immunity against a new infection. Dr. Ozer points out, “Every infection is an opportunity (for the virus) to adapt further and to overcome new defenses.”
Despite the rise in cases, there hasn’t been a spike in hospitalizations. According to data from The Washington Post, about 38,000 people were hospitalized nationally with covid as of last Friday, which has been steadily rising since early March but well below the record 162,000 patients hospitalized with Covid seen in mid-January. Further, the average daily death toll hasn’t really changed in the past two months—it’s been hovering around 330 deaths per day.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on a booster shot designed specifically with omicron and its variants that should be ready sometime in the fall. However, infectious disease experts say the country isn’t doing enough now to reduce the transmission of this dangerous virus that still causes illnesses with unpredictable severity. Currently, there’s no effort at the community level to limit the spread. Officials are warning of a possible fall or winter wave in which as many as 100 million infections throughout the country could flood hospitals with covid patients.
Individually, most people aren’t masking or social distancing. Instead, they’re taking their chances with the virus. For many people, Covid-19 is no longer a health emergency; it’s now a part of life. However, the CDC’s data shows nearly one-third of the U.S. population lives in counties rated as having “high” transmission levels. So, the agency is urging people to keep track of virus levels within their community, “stay up to date on vaccines, and take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and others.” Experts say vaccines and boosters are still the best protection against severe Covid-19.
The virus is not only evolving; it’s doing so with remarkable speed, meaning it may continually outrace the vaccines. Some experts are worried that by the time we have a vaccine for BA.5, there will be a new variant that’s more transmissible and possibly more severe. In fact, a new omicron subvariant has caught the attention of virologists: BA.2.75.
The new subvariant was first seen last month in India but has been identified in several other countries, including Australia, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, and United States. Presently, it’s unclear whether it can cause more severe disease than other omicron variants. It’s unclear whether it’ll pass BA.5 as the dominant strain. According to Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, “It does look like, especially in India, the rates of transmission are showing kind of that exponential increase.”
Experts agree that while we shift toward pre-pandemic life, we still need to be careful. We need to realize we’re living with a higher level of risk now than we were just a few months ago. The more we reduce infections, the fewer chances the virus has to continue to mutate. So, there are still excellent reasons to avoid getting Covid.