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With several COVID variants circulating at once, and as new ones continue to emerge, it can be difficult to keep track of them all, let alone know how concerning each one actually is.
Adding to the confusion is a feeling of mixed messages. On the one hand, mask requirements are continuing to ease — most recently, at some hospitals and nursing homes in certain situations — and hospitalizations and deaths from COVID are declining. But on the other hand, new contagious variants keep coming and there are still, on average, nearly 350 people dying from COVID daily in the U.S. — all while experts are saying we are not out of the woods yet.
Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine and vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Yahoo Life: “While I think the consensus is that the pandemic is not over because the disruptions due to this infection over the coming months are unpredictable — this isn’t yet a seasonal endemic virus — the worst of it is likely to be behind us if we take sensible measures to protect our population,” including vaccinations and boosters.
However, warns Ray, “If we completely relax, we are more likely to see widespread infections” and “severe infections in those with low levels of immunity,” along with more variants evolving.
Given all that, how concerned should you be about the latest emerging Omicron variants? And how well do the new bivalent boosters protect against them? Here’s what experts know so far.
What do we know about the latest emerging variants?
While the Omicron variant BA.5 is still far and away the most common one infecting people in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors multiple variants, is tracking three emerging Omicron strains whose numbers are climbing. They are BA.4.6, BF.7 and BA.2.75.
BA.4.6, in particular, is gaining ground, and it’s currently the second most common variant after BA.5. Variants BF.7 — “a shortened name for BA.18.104.22.168, so it’s a subvariant of BA.5,” explains Ray — and BA.2.75 (along with its subvariant BA.2.75.2) are also “growing as a proportion of new cases in the U.S.,” he says. Ray points out that these variants are “highly evolved to escape immune responses to prior variants.”
Some experts, however, say more information is still needed. “The critical questions for new variants are always related to three concepts: transmissibility, severity and degree of evasion from coverage by the vaccines,” Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, a professor of infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “It is too early to make any definitive conclusions about these concepts.”
That said, there is some possible good news. “Historically, newer variants such as Omicron, have in general been milder than prior strains of the virus,” says Kulkarni.
Will bivalent boosters help protect against these emerging variants?
Pfizer and Moderna’s new bivalent boosters were reformulated to protect against severe disease, hospitalization and death from Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BA.4 and the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. “Fortunately, it looks like recent vaccination helps in protecting us against disease from these [new variants],” he says, “and our updated bivalent boosters are more likely to enhance this protection safely.”
However, Kulkarni says that we’ll know more in the “coming days and weeks,” as these emerging variants likely gain more ground, adding: “It is a bit early to know with certainty about this.”
What steps should people be taking now to protect themselves?
At this point in the pandemic, mitigation steps that people might take should be based on their “personal risk tolerance” and the risk of a serious outcome from a severe COVID-19 infection, says Kulkarni. “If someone is severely immunocompromised or elderly or has significant medical comorbidities, for example, they may wish to take additional precautions,” he says, such as wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask.
Another reason to take precautions: Ray points out that data show repeated COVID infections “increase risk for cardiovascular and mental health complications down the road, suggesting that people should try to limit infection while having as much of a normal life as possible.”
He adds: “Finding this balance involves assessing one's own risk, and the risk of the people we care for, and recognizing that we have tools like high-quality masks, rapid tests and vaccinations that can help us achieve greater resilience against this virus.”
Will new variants just keep coming? And in response to that, reformulated boosters?
More than likely, say experts. “It is likely that new variants will continue to emerge over time,” says Kulkarni, who notes that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is expected to continue to circulate for many years. “The critical question with respect to updated vaccines is to what extent prior vaccination and/or infection-induced immunity will prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths going forward. This will determine the need for a boosting strategy moving forward.”
Ray shares that there’s ongoing research looking into new vaccines that will provide “more durable protection against new variants by targeting more constant parts of the virus.”
It's also possible that boosters will become annual like the influenza vaccine. “But even for that virus there are promising leads on vaccines that will generate protection that will last for years,” says Ray, referring to current trials for a universal, long-lasting flu vaccine that targets multiple influenza viruses at once.
“For now,” he says, “we have the tools that we have, and we’re doing our best to protect the vulnerable among us, and avoid overwhelming infections and surges.”
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