A new variant of COVID-19, dubbed BA.5, is now spreading both nationally and locally. It’s “highly immune evasive,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha said this week, meaning catching the virus before doesn’t offer as much protection against it. future cases of BA.5. Over the past two weeks, COVID-19 infections have increased by 6% nationwide, hospitalizations have increased by 17% and deaths by 13%.
Earlier this week, a few local experts joined GBH News to preview what could happen and how residents can better protect themselves.
Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, said that when a new variant emerges, researchers should look to answer three questions: “Is it more transmissible, will it cause more serious and will she escape immunity?”
BA.5 is more transmissible than previous variants, she said, which means the number of cases will increase. Whether or not the new variant causes more severe reactions remains to be seen, and more data needs to be collected. Finally, BA.5 seems to escape vaccine immunity. A booster shot will help, Assoumou said.
“The big picture is that this is a worrying subvariant, but we have steps to improve the results,” she said.
Paul Sax, clinical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, pushed back against the idea that BA.5 is the worst version of COVID yet. This label should belong to the very first version of the virus, he said, because the population had not developed any immunity before it spread around the world.
“The dominant effect on disease severity is the degree of prior immunity in the population, and our population now has high prior immunity against previous infections and vaccinations. Even though the number of cases is on the rise, I want to say that it is not the same as going back to square one in 2020,” he said.
Sax continued to point out that while hospitalizations are increasing, the severity of cases today is not at the same level as in the early days of the pandemic.
The ability to contain this new wave could be hampered by the fact that many public health measures, such as mask mandates, have been relaxed.
“Unfortunately… it’s been going on for a few years now and people are tired of having to comply with certain requirements,” Assoumou said. “We have more knowledge and we have more measurements now. We know a layered approach is how we get to the other side.
Assoumou pointed out that many Massachusetts residents who are eligible to receive a booster shot have not yet done so. Eligibility information can be found on the state’s website.
State officials recently announced that COVID data will be reported weekly, instead of the five-day-a-week reporting schedule used previously. In a statement, state epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown said the decision was an effort to “focus on the most useful metrics at any given time.”
Not all professionals share this sentiment.
“At a time when we have a subvariant that we know is more transmissible and more immune evasive, I personally would have liked to have had access to more data,” Assoumou told GBH News.
Another wrinkle to consider is the long COVID. Last month, federal data showed that nearly one in five people who had caught COVID in the past are currently experiencing lengthy COVID symptoms.
Investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital announced last week that they had discovered a potential biomarker for long COVID in blood samples, which could help inform the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
Sax told GBH News that one of the biggest hurdles people with long COVID symptoms face is the fact that there is no test to definitively prove they have long COVID.
“[Researchers] found evidence of the spike protein in people with long COVID, and what that shows is that either the actual virus is still present or remnants of the virus are still present,” Sax said. “This leads to the question of ‘does this residue or this virus cause long COVID’, and if so, it will be very important to look for ways to eradicate it.”
Many in the medical community wonder if antiviral therapy could help fight the long COVID. Sax said this should be investigated urgently.
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