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The omicron variant of COVID-19 keeps changing, creating newer, more contagious variants. BA.5 seems to be the most contagious version to date and is causing most current COVID-19 cases in the US
Why it matters
BA.5 is causing more reinfection in people who already had COVID-19, including earlier versions of omicron. It’s also evading immunity from the vaccines.
What it means for you
BA.5 does not appear to be causing more severe disease than earlier variants, and the vaccines are just as effective at preventing severe disease compared to earlier versions of omicron. To stay protected, get the booster shots you’re eligible for.
You’re probably not immune from getting COVID-19 again even if you had it from an older version of omicron (BA.1 or BA.1.1 in January, for example) because the extremely contagious BA.5 variant is now causing most COVID -19 cases in the US, federal health officials said Tuesday at a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing.
At the meeting, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, explained how the virus that causes COVID-19 keeps mutating, and the virus “essentially bumped one variant off the table after the other,” which has led to a long parade of subvariants of omicron. The newest one responsible for the majority of COVID-19 cases is BA.5.
While the newest subvariant “substantially” evades antibodies from previous infections and vaccines, Fauci said, being up-to-date with a booster (or two boosters, if you’re 50 or older) is still protective against severe disease and death. That’s because research shows that BA.5 does not lessen the protection against severe diseases compared to earlier versions of omicron. And while not much is known about its clinical severity compared to earlier subvariants of omicron, it does not appear to cause more severe disease, Response Team officials said.
In an effort to target the most relevant strain of virus causing COVID-19, vaccines based on the BA.5 subvariant (along with BA.4) will be the first choice for COVID-19 booster shots this fall. The Biden administration also released guidance for monitoring BA.5 going forward, using the same public health measures (COVID-19 tests, vaccines and treatments) that’ve been used for earlier variants. Response Team Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha encouraged everyone to get a booster if they’re eligible and haven’t opted for one yet, because it won’t affect their ability to get vaccinated come fall or winter when new boosters start rolling out to Americans.
Here’s what we know about BA.5.
How severe is BA.5? Do COVID-19 treatments still work?
BA.5 is a subvariant of omicron, which means it’s different from the “original” omicron, but not different enough to constitute its own variant status. (Delta is a different variant from omicron and beta, for example.) BA.5 is understood to be the most contagious version of the virus yet, however, and it’s evading immunity. This means more people will get reinfected with COVID-19, which can put them at risk of complications and long-term COVID symptoms, even if the infection itself was mild.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that we don’t know definitively yet about the clinical severity of BA.5 compared to earlier subvariants of omicron. But that said, BA.5 does not appear to be associated with more severe disease compared to recent strains of the virus, Fauci said.
In an analysis of a preliminary (not yet peer-reviewed) report from the Kirby Institute in Australia, Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scrips Research, wrote that BA.5’s ability to infect cells might be more similar to the delta variant than other versions of omicron. He also writes that changes in BA.5 might explain reports of people taking longer to test negative compared to illnesses with earlier omicron subvariants.
As with other versions of omicron that whittled down our immunity, the vaccines and boosters available are still expected to provide protection against severe disease and death. Boosters — including a second booster — have been particularly important for protecting older adults and other people more vulnerable to severe disease in the age of omicron, and have substantially cut the risk of death from COVID-19.
Paxlovid, an effective antiviral medication, is still expected to be effective at treating COVID-19 in people at higher risk of severe disease, Fauci said Tuesday. The monoclonal antibody therapy available, bebtelovimab from Eli Lilly, is also predicted to be effective against BA.5, as is.
If you test positive for COVID-19 and are at higher risk of severe disease (you’re an older adult or you have a health condition), reach out to your doctor or find a Test to Treat clinic near you.
What are the symptoms?
There isn’t information available now to suggest a difference in COVID-19 symptoms between different types of omicron — including BA.5. For many people who become sick with COVID-19 these days (particularly those who are fully vaccinated and boosted), symptoms resemble cold symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose and fatigue. Back pain is a peculiar new symptom of COVID-19 that some people with omicron have reported, and the once common loss of taste or smell appears to be much less common with omicron variants than with older strains.
If you have symptoms and are wondering whether it’s COVID-19, taking a test and staying home while you’re sick will help protect people more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease.
Understanding omicron, variants and subvariants
Variants are made up of multiple lineages and sublineages. Each variant has a “parent” lineage, according to the CDC, followed by other lineages, which you can think of like a family tree. As the virus spreads between people, mutations occur, but not all of them change the characteristics of the virus in meaningful ways.
The omicron variant and its sublineages made the virus much more contagious and capable of infecting more people, but it led to less severe disease, on average, than the delta variant.
One of the most important things we can do to stop the virus from mutating is keeping community levels of COVID-19 low so the virus has less chance to mutate, Fauci said.
Genomic surveillance can detect variants and sublineages. Scientists in South Africa were able to quickly identify omicron as a new variant because of the way it presents through PCR tests. The original omicron causes a dropped signal or marker on the test that sets it apart from delta, which was the dominant variant prior to omicron. BA.2, however, did not have the same signal, called an S gene target failure. This made it more “stealthy” and gave it its name. Genomic sequencing will detect all omicron subvariants and coronavirus variants in general.
However, detecting new variants or subvariants may be becoming more difficult as the number of sequences shared across the world have “dropped precipitously,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease specialist with the World Health Organization, said in June. While the impact was still enormous, having real-world data available quickly after scientists detected omicron was a benefit during the worldwide surge last winter.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.