Top US health officials warned on Tuesday that a wave of COVID-19 cases, caused by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant BA.5, has arrived, but stressed that the country has the resources — such as vaccines and antiviral treatments — to prevent people from become seriously ill.
“We know how to handle it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, during a virtual press conference. “We can prevent serious illnesses. We can save lives and we can minimize disruptions caused by COVID-19.”
The BA.5 subvariant now accounts for 65% of current COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and chief medical adviser to President Biden, said BA.5 “evades substantially neutralizing antibodies” elicited in people who have been vaccinated or previously infected.
But Fauci said current vaccines “are still effective in preventing serious COVID-19 outcomes,” such as hospitalization and death — and urged Americans to stay current on their COVID immunizations.
“The threat to you is now,” he said. “If you are not fully vaccinated … then you have an increased risk that you can reduce by getting vaccinated.”
The warnings from Fauci and other top COVID officials come Tuesday as the US transitions into what experts are describing as a new phase of the pandemic.
Call it the era of reinfection.
“BA.5 hits the nail in the coffin of the myth that the virus will evolve into a milder form and disappear,” wrote Dr. Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, in the Los Angeles Times Tuesday. “We could easily see more variants in the coming months – indeed a whole new family with more extensive immune evasion and growth advantage.”
At first, COVID-19 seemed like a one-time infection. Not anymore. The primary culprit is BA.5, which has a host of mutations that make it better than any of its predecessors at evading the immune defenses we built up over two and a half years of infection and vaccination, only to infect us anyway.
BA.5 isn’t the first evasive variant we’ve encountered; both Delta and the earlier versions of Omicron also bypassed first-generation antibodies. But BA.5 and its closely related cousin, BA.4, are unique in that they evolved specifically to evade the massive amounts of fresh immunity left behind by the original iteration of Omicron after it conquered the world last winter – meaning that the old assumptions about a recent infection completely protecting you from rapid re-infection no longer apply.
“We know [BA.5] to be more communicable and more immune evasive,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at Tuesday’s briefing. “People with a previous infection, even with BA.1 or BA.2, are probably still at risk for BA.4 and BA.5.”
None of this will bring the US back to square one. Despite an increased number of cases, there are now fewer U.S. COVID patients in intensive care units than during earlier phases of the pandemic, and the national death rate (about 300 to 400 per day) is near an all-time low. Acquired immunity, multiple rounds of vaccinations and improved treatment options help – a lot.
“Even in light of BA.5, the tools we have continue to work,” Jha said Tuesday, noting the importance of boosters for the over-50s and post-infection treatments like Paxlovid.
But for our immune system, the distance from BA.1 to heavily mutated BA.5 is “much greater” than the distance between the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and previous blockbuster variants like Alpha and Delta – which does make it harder to spot and answer. According to the latest research, that could mean:
So far, the rise of BA.5 in the US has coincided with the decline of previous versions of Omicron, leading to what appears to be a plateau in the nationwide number of cases of about 100,000 per day. (The vast majority of infections now go unreported, as Americans increasingly rely on rapid home tests rather than the PCR tests used earlier in the pandemic.) But reinfections have doubled in recent weeks in places like San Diego County, California, and test positivity , hospitalizations and even ICU admissions have steadily increased across the country. Experts worry that the virus’s accelerated evolution and aggressive new trajectory — toward greater transmissibility, evasion, and possibly pathogenicity — could put vulnerable Americans at risk in the coming months.
According to CDC data, 67% of the US population is considered fully vaccinated after receiving the first two doses of Pfizer or Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson COVID Injection. But less than half of those eligible for boosters (47%) have received one, and a new booster targeting BA.5 is not expected until October at the earliest.
“It’s very, very clear … that immunity is declining, whether that’s immunity after infection or immunity after vaccination,” Fauci said Tuesday. “If you have become infected with BA.1, you really do not have good protection against it [infection with] BA.5.”
And while the daily death toll in the US is lower than earlier during the pandemic, it is still “too high,” Jha said.
“We are in a phase of the pandemic where most deaths from COVID-19 are preventable,” he said.
“Variants will continue to emerge as the virus circulates globally and in this country,” Fauci added. “We shouldn’t let it interfere with our lives, but we can’t deny that it’s a reality we have to deal with.”
To that end, Jha said the government would release two reports on “long COVID” in early August, followed by a strategy to accelerate the development of next-generation vaccines that could protect against all variants of the coronavirus and stop infection before it ends. begins.
“You’ll be hearing more from us in the coming days and weeks,” Jha said. “It’s something we’ve been working very diligently on.”