It’s hard to ignore the growing buzz surrounding the latest COVID-causing variant known as BA.2, which has now become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization, which tracks variants, called it “a variant of concern.” But what is it and how concerned should you really be?
After the Omicron surge last winter, it’s understandable to feel a bit worried — and weary — about yet another variant (or in this case, subvariant), just as things seem to be opening back up across the country. Here’s what experts have to say.
What exactly is BA.2?
The Omicron variant has “multiple lineages” associated with it, such as BA.1 and now BA.2, Dr. Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious disease physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.
So BA.2 is a subvariant, or sublineage, of Omicron that is now “replacing the BA.1 variant, which was responsible for the surge of cases this winter,” explains Sobhanie.
Although it’s now become the dominant strain in the U.S., Dr. Steven Gordon, chair of infectious disease at Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Life: “This is not a surprise, as we have learned that this subvariant is more transmissible than the original Omicron variant — which was several times more transmissible than Delta.”
How is it different from other variants?
When it comes to symptoms, it’s similar to other variants. Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that “the preliminary knowledge at this point is that the symptoms of BA.2 are not substantially different from the original Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2.”
Sobhanie agrees, saying the symptoms of BA.2 tend to be similar to ones of other variants and respiratory viral illnesses in general — namely, “runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever,” he says, noting: “It is important to still have home tests at hand if you develop symptoms.”
However, BA.2 does appear to be highly contagious. Sobhanie describes the strain as a “more fit version of BA.1,” which means that “it can spread much more aggressively than previous variants and the BA.1 lineage.”
But more contagious doesn’t necessarily mean it’s deadlier than other variants. So far, that seems to be the case with BA.2.
“The preliminary knowledge at this point is that the severity of BA.2 is not higher than the severity of the original Omicron strain,” says Kulkarni. “This might prove to be different going forward — potentially more or less severe. However, at the current time, it appears to be similar in terms of severity.”
Gordon agrees, saying: “We don’t think that BA.2 causes more serious disease. It seems to be similar in severity to the original Omicron.”
Could BA.2 trigger another surge?
It’s possible. “Based on what we have seen in Europe, there is a potential to see another surge,” says Sobhanie. “It’s possible we will not see as great a surge as seen in Europe due to mitigation factors, such as warmer weather leading to more outdoor activity than indoor activity in the spring and summertime.”
He adds: “COVID has taught us that whatever happens locally will eventually happen globally — and we are watching what is going on with Europe very closely.”
Gordon echoes that sentiment, saying: “We are closely monitoring for signs of another surge, as well as watching what is happening in other countries. We know other places, such as in Europe, are seeing increasing cases and hospitalizations. We do expect to see some increase in infections. However, in the United States, we were hit particularly hard by the original Omicron wave, and that, along with vaccination, may help stave off a large surge.”
So how concerned should people be in general, especially if they’re already vaccinated?
Experts say that if you don’t have a weakened immune system and are “up to date on your vaccine status, you are in a better position than those who are not vaccinated or up to date on their vaccine status in [terms of] developing severe disease, which can lead to hospitalization,” says Sobhanie.
For those who are eligible, having a booster is also important. “We know that the booster makes a significant difference in reducing severe illness, hospitalization and deaths from COVID-19,” says Gordon. “These are the outcomes that can be most prevented by vaccination. We encourage all those who are eligible and have not yet gotten their booster to do so. Those who are particularly vulnerable — aged 50-plus or immunocompromised — are also now eligible for a second booster.”
For those who are immunocompromised, there is also a preventive monoclonal antibody drug called Evusheld, which is an FDA-authorized drug “for patients who cannot produce an adequate antibody response with vaccination alone,” Sobhanie explains. “This monoclonal antibody is given before a patient gets COVID, so that they have antibodies circulating in their immune system and prevents them from getting COVID. It is not considered a treatment, and is intended to prevent people from getting sick.”
Sobhanie adds: “We do have other potential therapies for people who do get COVID, such as Paxlovid and Molnupiravir, and you may be eligible for either of these treatments if you get COVID.”
Even if you’ve already had Omicron, Gordon points out that you can still get infected with BA.2. However, “in general, previous infection with Omicron does provide protection against this new variant,” he says.
Should some consider being more vigilant about wearing masks in public, particularly indoors?
That depends, say experts. “It is going to depend on what the case counts are in their area,” says Sobhanie. “If there is a high circulation of COVID in your area, bringing the mask back is a good idea.”
Because the pandemic is “continually evolving and is different in different geographical areas of the country,” Kulkarni says, “one of the ways to keep up with the changing numbers at the local and state levels is to access CDC’s geographical data tracker.” The tracker lets you look up whether COVID levels are high, medium or low in your county. “It’s a convenient way to monitor trends in different areas,” he says.
In general, Gordon recommends both being mindful of your “own risk level,” such as underlying health issues, and paying attention to the level of COVID-19 spread in your community. “Certainly, those who are elderly, have underlying health conditions or who are immunocompromised should be more careful,” he says.
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