The omicron variant of COVID-19 has evolved again, and its latest incarnation will likely create a summer surge of Central Virginia COVID cases, according to a University of Virginia Medical Center official.
Omicron’s subvariant BA.5 is quickly becoming the predominant version of the virus to rampage through the world, becoming the number one variant in Europe according to the World Health Organization.
“We’re going to see some level of a surge due to this variant of omicron, BA.5,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at UVa Medical Center. “How long it will be and how long it will last is somewhat unknown. We won’t be waiting until the fall or winter to see an increase in COVID cases.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Diseases, control variant BA.5 appears to be “more transmissible than earlier strains” and “appears to be at least four times more vaccine-resistant.” The agency based its statement on a Columbia University study published this week.
“BA.5, which accounted for more than 40% of all New York state positive COVID samples sequenced for variants in the latest two-week data set, and BA.4, were at least 4.2 times more vaccine-evasive than their predecessor,” CDC officials said on Friday.
The CDC quoted the Columbia University research when it indicated that omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1, which created a surge of hospitalizations in May, sent 87% of all New York state counties into the high-risk territory for community COVID transmission.
That variant, however, was only 1.8 times more resistant to the vaccine.
Sifri said similar increases are being seen locally.
“What we’re seeing is an increase in cases caused by subvariant BA.5 and this is going to be a similar theme to what people have heard previously, in which new variants have replaced old variants,” Sifri said. “We’ve seen these variants are descendants of, or related to, the original omicron variant but they are rather distinct antigenically.”
That makes a difference. Sifri said people who have developed some immunity or antigens to the omicron, delta or other variants do not have as much immunity against BA.5.
“BA.5 is different enough compared to BA.1 and BA.2 in that reinfection even after a previous infection in the last several months is possible,” Sifri said. “Because the vax in based on the ancestral strain of the original variant from Wuhan, the amount of neutralizing antibodies is lower to neutralize BA.5 than previous variations of COVID.”
Research published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control concurs. The research shows BA.5 is the COVID-causing culprit in 65% of the cases across the country.
“The challenge we’re seeing now is more and more cases of COVID reinfection. People who have had a history of COVID in the past are developing COVID again, maybe even for the third time for some individuals,” Sifri said. “People who had COVID as recently as January or February are developing COVID again.”
That means protection resulting from infection or vaccination is not a strong when faced with the new variant.
But Sifri said that the vaccines do continue to ease the severity of illness caused by the BA.5 variant and its cousins.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that if you’ve had a COVID infection or are vaccinated, you have protection against the serious implications of COVID, including hospitalization and death,” he said. “By getting a booster vaccine, you are giving a higher level of protection against those implications.”
With a potential surge approaching, Sifri recommended getting vaccinations or booster, if eligible.
“You want to provide yourself with the highest level of protection going into a surge, and it appears we are not the upslope of that right now,” he said.
Exactly how much impact the variant will have on the community or the duration of the surge are unknown, Sifri said.
“I don’t want to use the Yogi Berraism of predicting things is difficult, particularly about the future, but it’s true,” he said. “We’re going to continue to see more communities with high levels of transmission caused by BA.5.”
Sifri recommends wearing K-95 or KN-95 masks indoors and in crowded public spaces.
“Masking is really the exception to the rule in a lot of airplanes and a lot of airports right now; and if you are in those situations, and not wearing a mask, you should anticipate that you will be exposed to COVID,” he said.
Sifri said potentially severe outcomes from COVID could occur even in those who are vaccinated. Repeated infections make that worse.
“There’s growing evidence that suggests that, if you have multiple incidents of COVID, those consequences to your health may be compounded. There may be a further increase in cardiovascular disease, development of diabetes and long COVID, if you have multiple events,” he said.
“It’s to our benefit to try and prevent exposing ourselves to COVID,” he said.