A highly transmissible mutation of the omicron-COVID variant known as BA.5 is of concern worldwide as it continues to gain traction in several countries, leading to new waves of cases and, in some cases, hospitalizations.
The rise in cases, even as the statistics remain uncertain due to the availability of COVID testing at home, has sparked warnings and renewed calls for masking in some locations.
So what’s with the new variant that makes it particularly worrisome and what should you look out for?
This is what we know so far.
What should you know about BA.5?
As of July 2, the BA.5 subvariant accounted for nearly 54% of COVID cases in the U.S. BA.4, a similar subvariant, accounted for nearly 17% more, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
David Montefiori, a professor at Duke University Medical Center’s Human Vaccine Institute, told NBC News that BA.4 and BA.5 are about three times less sensitive to neutralizing antibodies from existing COVID vaccines than the original version of the omicron vaccine. variant, BA .1. Additional research suggests that BA.4 and BA.5 are four times more resistant to vaccine antibodies than BA.2. That subvariant replaced ommicron as the dominant version of the coronavirus in the US in April.
Marco Cavaleri of the European Medicines Agency told an online briefing that the BA.4 and BA.5 mutations are expected to become dominant across the continent, “probably replacing all other variants by the end of July.”
He said that while there is no evidence that the variants make people sicker than previous virus strains, “the increase in transmission among older age groups is beginning to translate into serious illness.”
What symptoms should you watch out for?
The UK, where BA.4 and BA.5 infections are also responsible for most recent COVID cases, last week reported a runny nose, sore throat, headache, persistent cough and fatigue as the most common symptoms.
Less than a third of people surveyed reported a fever, according to data from the Zoe COVID Symptom Study, which allows people to self-report symptoms through smartphone apps. The symptoms are similar to those reported in the spring, when the BA.2 subvariant was dominant in the country.
An update to the COVID vaccines is needed to combat the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants that are now increasing the number of cases, says Dr. Uché Blackstock, an MSNBC medical officer and head of Advancing Health Equity.
According to the University of California Davis Health, the reported symptoms of BA.5 are similar to previous COVID variants: fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. At present, there does not appear to be any difference in the symptoms seen in BA.4 or BA.5 cases, compared to previous omicron strains.
If you had COVID before, how protected are you against BA.5?
Francois Balloux, the director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said that while BA.1 and BA.2 are “quite different … BA.2, BA.4 and B.5 are essentially interchangeable from a neutralizing antibody perspective. ”
Therefore, people with BA.2 infections may have some protection against the newest subvariants, he said. Although they spread faster than any other, BA.4 and BA.5 were not found to cause more serious disease, according to doctors.
“There’s really no clear evidence that they are more or less likely to make people sick and cause serious illness and death,” Montefiori said.
dr. Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, said people need to understand that variants such as Omicron and BA.5 are a natural part of the virus’ progression.
“Delta would never be the last variant — and Omicron won’t be the last,” he said, according to an article on the school’s website. “As long as there is an outbreak of COVID-19 somewhere in the world, something new is going to emerge.”
What steps can you take to protect yourself?
The best way to prevent new variants, Grubaugh and other doctors say, is to get vaccinated and get booster shots. As more people are fully vaccinated, the chance for the virus to spread and mutate decreases, they say.
The European Union said on Monday it is “critical” that authorities in the 27-nation bloc are considering giving second coronavirus booster shots to people between the ages of 60 and 79 and other vulnerable people as a new wave of the pandemic sweeps across the continent .
“With the number of cases and hospitalizations increasing again as we enter the summer period, I urge everyone to get vaccinated and encouraged as soon as possible. There is no time to lose,” said European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides in a statement.
ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said the new wave is being driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 mutation of the ommicron variant of the coronavirus.
“This marks the start of another widespread COVID-19 wave across the European Union,” she said. “There are still too many individuals at risk of serious COVID-19 infection that we need to protect as soon as possible. to remind people of the importance of vaccination from the very first injection to the second booster. We have to start today. †
Meanwhile, New York City public health officials on Friday urged residents to return to wearing masks indoors, noting they are seeing high levels of COVID-19 infection.
To help slow the spread, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene advised in a tweet that “all New Yorkers should wear a high-quality mask such as an N95, KN95 or KF94 in all indoor public settings and around outdoor crowds.” .”
What else do you need to know?
The spread of BA.5 also comes as scientists worry about a new ommicron mutant — called BA2.75 — gaining ground in India and showing up in other countries.
Scientists say the new variant could potentially spread quickly and evade immunity from vaccines and previous infections. It is unclear whether it can cause more serious disease than other ommicron variants, including BA.5.
“It’s very early for us to jump to too many conclusions,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “But it seems that, especially in India, the transmission rates are showing some kind of exponential increase.” Whether it will surpass BA.5, he said, is yet to be determined.
Still, the fact that it’s already been detected in many parts of the world, even with lower levels of viral surveillance, is “an early indication that it’s spreading,” said Shishi Luo, head of infectious diseases at Helix, a company that provides viral sequencing. information to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest mutant has been spotted in several distant states in India and appears to be spreading faster than other variants there, said Lipi Thukral, a scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi. It has also been detected in about 10 other countries, including Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. Two cases were recently identified on the US West Coast and Helix identified a third US case last week.
Experts’ concerns are a large number of mutations that separate this new variant from ommicron predecessors. Some of those mutations are in regions related to the spike protein and could allow the virus to bind to cells more efficiently, Binnicker said.
Another concern is that the genetic adjustments could make it easier for the virus to get past antibodies — protective proteins made by the body in response to a vaccine or infection of a previous variant.