This is a case update. I’ll also discuss important new data in regards to BA.4 and BA.5 variants which you may want to take into account as you move around in our “post-COVID” world. You should especially read this if you’re one of the few who have never had COVID. I’ll also suggest a range of strategies that you may employ to keep yourself safe.
The update is actually not much different in the US from last week. Cases are medium-high but flat right now, and we have happily not yet seen increased deaths due to Omicron BA.2.12.1, BA.4, and BA.5 variants.
BA.4 and BA.5 now predominate in the US, being 17% and 54% of cases respectively. Together, they are 70% of new cases. Hospitalizations are up slightly, but not nearly so high as in January, at the height of the Omicron wave.
Keep in mind that many and perhaps most people who have COVID right now are not getting tested by a health care provider, and are not being treated, so they are not a “case” and do not appear in current statistics. While it’s great news that we haven’t yet seen increased deaths in the US, there is sobering news which may cause a change in this in the next few weeks.
BA.5 reinfecting Omicron patients: A few weeks ago, an urgent care doctor friend of mine said that he had seen some patients who have had Omicron twice. Just this week, some friends of mine who had Omicron in January, just like me, came down with it again. They have COVID right now. Like me, they were pretty miserable in January for a full 2 weeks. Happily, their symptoms are moderate now, like a bad cold, just for 2 or 3 days.
Just yesterday, John Campbell released a video regarding BA.4 and BA.5. While he has a pretty bland delivery and focuses on the UK, he’s honest, balanced, and one of the only pundits still covering COVID in any detail.
Dr. Campbell’s newest video has some sobering information about BA.4 and BA.5 variants. As you can see from the data above, BA.5 is more infectious than BA.2 and BA.4, and will probably become dominant in the US in the next few weeks.
While still being called an Omicron variant, I wouldn’t be surprised if BA.5 gets it’s own Greek letter. Maybe Pi or Rho.
Unfortunately, Dr. Campbell claims that BA.5 is different enough from earlier Omicrons that they do not provide robust protection against BA.5 infection. He says Omicron is “poorly immunogenic”, but later clarifies in the video that this is likely because SARS-2 variants are changing very rapidly right now. The current COVID vaccines are having little impact, and the virus is changing so rapidly that updated vaccines are not practical to produce, meaning that the age of COVID vaccines is really already over.
For some good news, reinfections are usually milder than previous cases. So if you’ve already had COVID, BA.5 is likely nothing to be worried about.
Portugal had a lot of BA.4 and BA.5 in May and June, and they experienced more hospitalizations and deaths. Some worry that BA.5 may produce more severe cases in “naive” people, those with neither natural nor vaccine mediated immunity. Drs. Kei Sato and Stephen Griffin claim that BA.5 is growing deep in the lungs, like pre-Omicron versions, which makes it more likely to produce pneumonia. Most Omicron variants grow primarily in the trachea, which is why they are less likely to produce severe disease.
Last, Dr. Campbell argues from a letter by Hachmann et al, that prior infection plus vaccination offers better protection than either alone, but that BA.5 is still escaping neutralization. In my personal view, vaccination carries risks of it’s own, so if you are still not vaccinated, I would suggest taking increased precautions rather than vaccination at this point.
Cases in the UK are rising quickly right now, and often is a few weeks ahead of the US in any recent COVID trend. If data from Portugal and the UK hold true in the US, we may expect increasing cases in the US and perhaps more deaths as well.
Viruses have a tendency to become more infectious and less pathogenic over time. While this has been shown to be true many times in the last century, this is only a tendency and does not always hold true. While BA.5 is more infectious than previous versions, it’s tendency to grow in the lungs may make it more dangerous, so BA.5 is bucking the trend.
Strategies: Of course, it can be very hard to predict what will happen next. We also have a lot of different COVID experiences in the US in terms of whether someone has had COVID, what variant they had, whether they were vaccinated, etc. So any suggestions I make may not pertain to you.
Since I had COVID in January, I’ve been behaving in public as if I’m totally protected against a new infection. This may have been warranted, since I haven’t been infected again. I’ve even visited people with COVID at their house, treating it as an opportunity for a free booster. But this new information gives me pause. I may be more vulnerable to BA.5 than I had hoped.
On the other hand, even BA.5 is mild in those with previous infections, so I will likely be OK if I get BA.5. I am still not vaccinated and don’t intend to be. So going forward, I am going to continue to behave as normal, without masking in public at this point.
My main reason for being so careful before I got infected was the Antibody Dependent Enhancement (ADE) issue. Now that I’ve been infected, it’s not useful for me to continue with my previous caution. In fact, the “free booster” method may now help me with future versions more than avoiding infection would.
If you have never had COVID, you may choose to take increased precautions to prevent infection. Wear an N95, KN95, or KF94 mask when indoors in public. Don’t wear a cloth or blue surgical mask. These masks will not protect you from BA.5. Vaccination alone is not likely to be of much protection from BA.5.
If you do end up being infected with BA.5, regardless of the severity of your symptoms, stay home until you’re COVID negative to protect those around you who may be vulnerable.
Will COVID be endemic? A client of mine was kind enough to recommend my posts to his board, saying that my COVID predictions always come true! I would love this to be that case, but I can’t claim that kind of record. I have certainly been wrong during the pandemic. In particular, I’ve said that Omicron will end the pandemic, and that it will won’t likely have a new dangerous variant. BA.5 may end up proving me wrong on both counts. The lightning speed that new variants are developing also challenges my previous statements. I can’t claim to always be right, but I will tell you as soon as possible if I’ve been wrong.
So will COVID last forever? In spite of BA.5, I still say no. While it has exceptions, the tendency for new viruses to be less pathogenic still holds true. I still expect new variants to generally be less dangerous than older ones. In fact, BA.5 will likely still have less impact than previous versions simply because so may people have previous infections.
Don’t fear, but be smart,