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How Can We Miss COVID If It Won't Go Away?
The new BA.5 subvariant is spreading fast.
A new, highly infectious version of the omicron variant called the BA.5 subvariant, is spreading rapidly in the US, and is now the dominant version of coronavirus in the country, accounting for more than half of cases nationwide as of this week according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A similar subvariant, BA.4, is also spreading, making up another 17 percent of new cases.
As the New York Times reports, the subvariants are causing a new increase in cases and hospitalizations, and that means you should be keeping track of infection rates in your area and take precautions like masking in indoor public places even if people look at you funny. Make sure you're boosted if you aren't yet, and that would include me; I had COVID back in April right around the time I became eligible for the second booster, so I guess I'll get my butt to the pharmacy for the shot now.
How worried should we be? Some, according to the experts, because BA.5 and it's ugly friend appear to be better at getting past our immunity than earlier subvariants, as the Times 'splains:
BA.5 and BA.4, both subvariants of the Omicron variant that swept the world during the winter, are the most capable versions of the virus yet at evading immunity from previous infections and vaccines. Both variants have mutations in their spike proteins that are different enough from earlier versions of the virus that they are able to dodge some antibodies.
Waves of infection — and the subsequent immunity that comes with them — vary across countries and make for imperfect comparisons. Vaccination rates also vary. But in places where BA.4 and BA.5 have been dominant for weeks or months, the subvariants have caused increases in cases and hospitalizations, despite some population immunity from previous waves.
The C.D.C. says there is so far no evidence that BA.4 or BA.5 is inherently more severe than other Omicron subvariants, but when more people become infected, the number of people hospitalized because of the virus may also rise.
In other words, it doesn't have to be a superbug to cause significant trouble. The Times notes that having had a previous infection with Omicron may not provide as much immunity to the new subvariants as seemed to be the case with the prior variants like Delta.
Places just emerging from significant spring waves of the virus may not be spared, either. Several countries in Europe had big outbreaks of a different Omicron subvariant, BA.2, that led to new waves of hospitalizations and deaths that peaked as recently as April. Yet in those countries, cases are ticking up again as BA.5 becomes dominant.
That said, vaccines are still the best defense, and as NBC News notes, the next likely step will involve developing tweaks to existing vaccines that will improve their effectiveness. The Food and Drug Administration recommended last week that pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer update their booster formulas to specifically account for the mutations found in the two new variants to optimize protection. But even the current vaccines continue to be highly effective in preventing serious illness or death.
Pfizer has said its updated boosters could be ready to distribute in October, which is good, because when fall arrives and people are spending more time indoors, infections are likely to start rising, no matter how much rightwing media insists we're just done with all of this. We'll have to wait and see whether a new round of boosters will be recommended for everyone in the fall; given that vaccine effectiveness does tend to wane over time, it seems likely.
If you're eligible for a second booster — the CDC currently recommends a second booster for folks 50 and over, and for anyone else who's immunocompromised — you may want to go ahead and do it now if you haven't already.
Mostly, you should remain careful, keep masking up if you're in indoor public places, and keep up with the news. COVID is still with us, and it doesn't seem likely to go away. And if you do get infected and you have risk factors for serious illness , then you should also ask your doctor for a prescription for Paxlovid, the antiviral pill. It's most effective if started within the first few days after you get symptoms.
Let's be careful out there.
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