ATLANTA – Health authorities warn we could see another increase in COVID-19 cases soon a new variant begins to become more widespread.
The tribe, a descendant of omicron known as BA.2, has already increased the number of cases abroad and caused lockdowns in China, Japan and South Korea.
Experts believe it is likely to lead to rising cases in the US, where cases have fallen sharply over the past two months – reaching their lowest levels since last July before the delta wave.
The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 23% of new US COVID cases are BA.2. In the south-eastern part, the figure is 12.4% and growing.
Health authorities say they are keeping an eye on the new data carefully, but that they have not seen a reason to go back to the level of masking and restrictions previously seen in the pandemic.
In Georgia, most of the state remains on one low COVID-19 community level outside a few counties in southern Georgia and three in northern Georgia, which remain at the intermediate level. Only Colquitt County has a high community level of COVID-19, the CDC says.
Officials say that while levels are lower, individuals should remain vigilant and remember that vaccines and boosters offer protection against the worst effects of COVID-19, regardless of variant.
What do you know about BA.2
BA.2 has lots of mutations. It has been dubbed “stealth” because it lacks a genetic distinctiveness of the original omicron that allowed health authorities to quickly differentiate it from the delta using a specific PCR test. So even though the test may detect a BA.2 infection, it looks like a delta infection.
Preliminary research suggests that BA.2 is more transmissible than the original omicron – about 30% more contagious with an estimate.
But vaccines can protect people from getting sick. Researchers in the United Kingdom found that they provide the same level of protection against both types of omicron.
A fight with the original omicron also appears to provide “strong protection” against re-infection with BA.2, according to early studies cited by the WHO.
But getting BA.2 after infection from the original omicron strain is possible, says new research out of Denmark. Study authors noted 187 total reinfections, including 47 with BA.2, that occurred shortly after a seizure of the original strain, mostly in young, unvaccinated people with mild disease. They concluded that such reinfections occur but are rare. Like other early studies of BA.2, this one has been posted online but not reviewed by independent scientists.
Does BA.2 make you sicker?
ONE Japanese laboratory study suggests that it could, based on experiments with hamsters. Researchers concluded that the risk to global health was “potentially higher” from BA.2 and suggested that it was given its own Greek letter – a term for globally significant “variants of concern.” The WHO technical group said BA.2 should remain under the omicron umbrella.
Although the severity experiments were performed in animals, the study is “nothing to give up,” said Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “We should keep an open mind and keep assessing this.”
But scientists find something else when they look at humans. An initial analysis in Denmark showed no differences in admissions for BA.2 compared with the original omicron, which generally tends to give milder disease than the delta variant. Recently, researchers in South Africa found much the same: a similar risk of hospitalization and serious illness with the original omicron variant and BA.2.
“We always have to interpret animal studies with caution,” said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at the Houston Methodist in Texas. “I put more emphasis on studies of actual patients and what they experience.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.