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More COVID Variants Emerge

Two new subvariants that are part of the Omicron family: BA.4 and BA.5.

Riding the wave of omicron infections—will we be "hanging ten" as we continue to surf the COVID pandemic here in 2022? My guess at this point is, "Likely yes!"

It is not what I want. It is not what anyone else wants either. I'll you this—the people in China don't want it!! The draconian measures there make our simple social distancing and mask wearing look paltry in comparison. Given the even more "potentially" infectious nature of every new variant, it might not take six months for BA.4 and BA.5 to become dominant here in the United States. Personally, it would be great if the new variants impact could at least hold off ravaging North America until the summer vacation season is over.

Just last week I was thinking that maybe my days of writing about the pandemic were coming to a close. Nope!

South Africa’s new surge
NY Times

South Africa is seeing signs of a fifth wave of the coronavirus as cases once again surge across the country. The recent spike is linked to two new subvariants that are part of the Omicron family: BA.4 and BA.5.

In the past week, cases have tripled, positivity rates have risen, and hospitalizations have increased. The surge, which is mainly concentrated in the Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, comes only a few months after South Africa’s initial Omicron wave last winter.

BA.4 and BA.5 are both offshoots of the original Omicron variant, which emerged sometime around November. In January, Omicron gave rise to a lineage of the virus with even more mutations, which included BA.4 and BA. 5. Here’s what we know so far:

• Emerging data show that in unvaccinated people, BA.4 and BA.5 evade the natural defenses produced from an Omicron infection.
• The two new subvariants spread more quickly than BA.2, which itself was more contagious than the original Omicron variant.
• Scientists are still studying whether this new wave creates more severe illness.
• In the U.S., public health officials have identified BA.4 and BA.5 circulating at low levels. But another Omicron subvariant, BA.2, is currently dominant, and one more subvariant, BA.2.12.1, is gaining ground.

“Scientists have been trying to figure out what those mutations do for the variants, and it looks like it helps them evade immunity from earlier forms of Omicron,” said my colleague Carl Zimmer. “A year ago, we were amazed at how fast Delta was spreading at the time. And in a year, we’ve gone through several upgrades of this virus, and now it spreads way faster. It’s on par with measles.”

We also seem to be in a different pattern of evolution, Carl added. In 2021, we saw new variants that were markedly different from other forms of the virus. But now we’re experiencing evolutionary upgrades to viruses that remain in the Omicron family tree.

“This is familiar terrain for scientists because this is similar to what the flu does, and other viruses do,” Carl said. “Instead of something leaping out of the blue, you have an existing virus that is clearly working very well, and then, thanks to evolution, works even better.”

It’s difficult to predict what the surge in South Africa means for other countries. Local spikes can depend on a lot of factors, including local levels of immunity, virus restrictions and weather conditions.

Researchers estimate that about 90 percent of the population in South Africa has some immunity, in part from inoculation but largely because of previous infection. Yet immunity from infection typically begins to wane at around three months. It’s natural to see re-infection at that stage, particularly given people’s changing behaviors, like less mask-wearing and increased traveling, one expert said.

Even so, as the epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina noted: “If ‘endemic’ SARS-CoV-2 is six-month infection waves, we are in for a wild ride.”
Disaster Zone by Eric Holdeman is dedicated to sharing information about the world of emergency management and homeland security.