The most recent subvariant of the new coronavirus to become prevalent in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world is also, in many respects, the most dangerous one that has been seen yet.
It would indicate that the BA.5 subvariant of the basic Omicron variant is more contagious than any other type of virus that has come before it. It also appears to be more adept at evading our antibodies, which suggests that it may be more prone to cause initial infections as well as subsequent recurrences.
Vaccinations and booster shots continue to be the most effective form of protection. Even booster shots that are unique to Omicron are currently being developed, and they have the potential to improve the efficacy of the best vaccines against BA.5 and its genetic relatives in the coming months.
However, BA.5’s unending journey across the other half of the earth serves as a powerful warning that the COVID epidemic is far from done. On his Substack, Eric Topol, who is the founder and head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, said, “We’re not done yet, by any stretch of the imagination.”
Vaccines and previous infections continue to provide the best protection against the worst possible outcomes, which are widespread cases of hospitalization and mortality. But the raw case numbers are rising at an alarming rate all across the world, which has major repercussions for possibly millions of people who are at an increased risk of developing a chronic condition.
Equally concerning is the fact that the most recent wave of infections is providing the coronavirus with the opportunity, as well as the time, to evolve into variations and subvariants that are much more hazardous. Irwin Redlener, the founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, recently gave an interview to The Daily Beast in which he stated that “the development of variants currently is a freight train.”
In other words, it is impossible to stop.
In February, BA.5 was discovered for the first time in viral samples collected in South Africa. In May, it had already established its dominance in Europe and Israel, displacing earlier forms of the fundamental Omicron variant and also contributing to an increase in the number of daily COVID cases reported around the world, which went from approximately 477,000 a day at the beginning of June to 820,000 a day this week.
At the end of June, BA.5 established itself as the predominant variant in the United States. Cases have not yet grown; the daily average has been about 100,000 since May. Since then, this has been the case. But as BA.5 continues to outcompete less transmissible subvariants, we could see a shift in this situation in the coming weeks.
Topol provided an unambiguous justification for BA.5’s rise to power. Whereas the changes that caused many earlier versions primarily damaged the spike protein of the virus — the component of the virus that assists it is grabbing onto and infecting human cells — BA.5 has alterations throughout its structure. Topol stated in his writing that “BA.5 is highly distinct and exceedingly fit,” thereby marking a notable change from all previous variations.
Due to the ubiquitous nature of BA.5’s alterations, the subvariant is now less recognizable to the antibodies that we have built up as a result of vaccinations, booster shots, and previous infections. The fact that BA.5 can stealthily sneak past our immune systems is a contributing factor to the increasing number of cases of breakthrough and reinfection.
Epidemiologists have been warning the public for several months now that persistently high case rates—which they largely attribute, in large part, to a stubborn anti-vax minority in many countries—would facilitate ever more infectious and evasive variants and subvariant. This comes as no surprise to epidemiologists, who have been warning the public for several months now. The greater the number of infections, the greater the likelihood of major mutations.
In this regard, BA5 may be regarded as a sneak peek into the following months and years. A year ago, we had the opportunity to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 by blocking its primary transmission channels through the use of vaccines and social isolation.
But we didn’t. Restrictions placed on companies, schools, and gatherings of people have developed into politically explosive issues in many parts of the world. Even in many countries where vaccinations are readily available, vaccination rates have remained unacceptably low. In the United States, for instance, the number of people who have received all of their recommended vaccinations has leveled off at about 67 percent.
After 31 months have passed since the first COVID case was identified in Wuhan, China, the virus is still present. The virus will develop an increasing number of varieties as it continues to spread. The tragic dynamic that led to BA.5 almost inevitably led to that conclusion.
The circumstance is not completely without any chance of resolution. There is some evidence that BA.5 reduces the efficacy of the most potent messenger-RNA vaccinations. Moderna, a company that manufactures vaccines, has presented data showing that a booster injection it is creating specifically for Omicron and its children works barely a third as effectively against BA.5 as it did against earlier subvariants of the virus.
However, vaccination, booster shots, and having BA.5 in the past all provide some protection against the disease, albeit to a lesser extent. Eric Bortz, a virologist and public-health expert at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, told The Daily Beast that “even a boost of the original genome, or a recent infection,” will “create” some cross-protective antibodies to lower the severity of a new Omicron subvariant infection.
The more additional jabs you receive on top of your primary course, the more secure you will feel. Two primary vaccinations with an mRNA vaccine produced by Pfizer or Moderna in addition to a couple of booster shots provide, arguably, the best protection against the disease. “Take that fourth shot, for crying out loud!” Redlener said.
The difficulty is that in the United States, the only persons who are eligible for a second booster shot are those who are 50 years old or older or who have certain immunological problems. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States would not comment on whether or whether it will permit second boosters for younger people or when it will do so. When questioned by The Daily Beast regarding boosters for people under the age of 50, an FDA spokeswoman responded, “I have nothing to share at this moment.”
Someone made a mistake in the bureaucracy. The United States is poised to lose up to a million booster doses because there are not enough people willing to use them. Topol referred to this as “a grave waste,” which should have been made available to all people under the age of 50 who sought further protection.
To be fair, both Pfizer and Moderna are hard at work developing new boosters that are customized especially for Omicron subvariants of their respective viruses. On June 30th, a panel of advisors from the FDA gave its approval to these variant-specific boosters. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicated that it is considering approving them for use in urgent situations for select Americans as soon as this fall.
However, there is a possibility that these jabs will appear too late, which is especially likely if they are highly specialized for a single recent subvariant and, as a result, ineffective against future subvariants. Topol stated in his writing that “variant-chasing” is a faulty strategy. “Who knows what will be the prevalent strain by the time a BA.5 vaccination booster could potentially be available?” “Who knows when that will be?”
There are, fortunately, other options available. Of course, they use masks and engage in voluntary social separation. Post-infection treatments, such as the antiviral medication paxlovid, can also be beneficial. Redlener emphasized that now is not the time to give up on interventions that do not include pharmaceuticals.
But voluntarily donning masks and taking Paxil are just bandages on a wound that is festering on a global scale. The dramatic increase of BA.5 infections paves the way for the subsequent significant subvariant, which we’ll refer to as BA.6. It’s possible things will get even worse.
It is appearing more and more likely that we will have to deal with COVID for, well, the rest of our lives. According to Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington Institute for Health, “COVID is becoming like the flu.” This quote was given to The Daily Beast.
That is the same as endemic. An ever-present danger to the health of the population. The current influenza is not nearly as harmful as COVID, which is the primary distinction between the two. And it keeps evolving in ways that make the problem even more difficult to solve.