The summer of subvariants


As this summer heats up, so has the spread of the hot new version of COVID-19.

Why it matters: This subvariant of Omicron called BA.5 — the most transmissible subvariant yet — quickly overtook previous strains to become the dominant version circulating the U.S. and much of the world.

BA.5 is so transmissible — and different enough from previous versions — that even those with immunity from prior Omicron infections may not have to wait long before falling ill again.

What they’re saying: “I had plenty of friends and family who said: ‘I didn’t want to get it but I’m sort of glad I got it because it’s out of the way and I won’t get it again’,” Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine told Axios. “Unfortunately that doesn’t hold the way it once did.”

  • “Even this one bit of good news people found in the gloom, it’s like, ‘Sorry’,” Wachter said.

State of play: This week, the CDC reported BA.5 became the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for nearly 54% of total COVID cases. Studies show extra mutations in the spike protein make the strain three or four times more resistant to antibodies, though it doesn’t appear to cause more serious illness.

  • Hospital admissions are starting to trend upward again, CDC data shows, though they’re still well below what was seen during the initial spread of Omicron.
  • It’s unclear whether that could be indicating an increase in patients in for COVID, or patients who happen to have COVID, Wachter said. “We’re up in hospitalizations around 20% but with a relatively small number of ICU patients,” Wachter said about COVID cases at UCSF.
  • In South Africa, the variant had no impact on hospitalizations while Portugal saw hospitalizations rise dramatically, Megan Ranney, academic dean at the Brown University School of Public Health told Axios.
  • “So the big unknown is what effect it’s going to have on the health care system and the numbers of folks living with long COVID,” she said.

Yes, but: “I’m certainly hearing about more reinfections and more fairly quick reinfections than at any other time in the last two and a half years,” Wachter said.

Zoom in: That is also largely the experience of the surge seen firsthand in New York City by Henry Chen, president of SOMOS Community Care, who serves as a primary care physician across three boroughs of the city.

  • With this particular variant, he said: “The symptoms are pretty much the same but a little bit more severe than the last wave. It’s more high fever, body ache, sore throat and coughing,” Chen said, adding his patient roster is mostly vaccinated.
  • But it is occurring among patients who’d gotten the virus only three or four months ago, he said.

The big picture: Another summertime wave of cases could prolong the pandemic, coming after many public health precautions were lifted and with available vaccines losing their efficacy against the ever-evolving virus.

The bottom line: The messaging isn’t to panic, but to understand the virus is likely spreading in local communities much more than individuals realize due to shrinking testing programs  and without the level of protection they might assume they have.

  • “If you don’t want to get sick, you still need to be taking at least some precautions,” Ranney said. “[COVID] is still very much among us.”

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