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Coronavirus

Q&A: What to know about BA.2, the newest COVID subvariant

The world couldn’t be more ready to move on from the deadly pandemic. But as predicted, the hardy coronavirus continues to mutate and infect people anew. Cases are again rising in Asia and Europe, which has been a harbinger of things to come here.

The upswing is tied to a new, even more contagious version of the omicron variant that spread like wildfire across the United States in December and January. That was BA.1 and the new subvariant is known as BA.2, and its numbers are rising in Maryland and the nation, according to surveillance that includes genetic sequencing.

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BA.2 is not yet dominant, according to the Maryland Department of Health, which has been testing about 10% of all positive cases in the state in conjunction with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. Since the first few cases were found in early February, there have been a total of 145 BA.2 cases reported, said health officials who plan to continue the testing.

There were 246 total COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday.

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The good news is there are reasons to believe there won’t be another massive wave of severe illness from BA.2 even though nearly all mask mandates and other measures are lifted.

Those most at risk continue to be the unvaccinated and un-boosted and people with weakened immune systems. Children under age 5 and the large number of children ages 5-11 who never got their shots could face infections too.

Also on the list are those who were not infected in the first omicron wave, said Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. She sums up what to expect.

What may be causing the surge in cases in European and Asian countries from the omicron subvariant BA.2, and why might we avoid another wave even though BA.2 is found in most states?

Cases are likely going to go up here as BA.2 is more transmissible, cases are rising in Europe and we have consistently seen that what we see in Europe soon is seen in the U.S. However, so many people in this country have already gotten infected by omicron, which should give people protective immunity, particularly those who have been vaccinated. It is possible that we will not see much of a rise in cases. But I worry that for the unvaccinated and those previously uninfected by omicron, the risks of infections can increase.

What about waning immunity in states like Maryland where vaccination rates are relatively high (about three-quarters are fully vaccinated), but booster rates are low (about two-thirds are not)? When might we need another booster?

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In a recent study from Qatar during omicron, boosters lowered symptomatic infections by one-half. That’s significant. As far as a fourth shot, that is less certain to be something everyone does, except for those people who are immunocompromised. The CEO of Pfizer recently said that they have data for why a fourth shot is important and they will submit that to the FDA. But until we see the data, it is hard to comment on it.

So many people were infected with BA.1, so are they likely to avoid BA.2 completely?

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Infection with BA.1 should be protective against BA.2, but vaccination plus that natural infection is even more protective.

How concerned are you for children with masks coming off, considering kids under 5 are ineligible for shots and protections for those ages 5-11 are not as robust as for older kids?

I am not thrilled about this. I understand that people are ready to move on, and cases are significantly down, but vaccination rates for that age group are poor, and we do not have a vaccine for the under-5 crowd. There are also many children who are vulnerable to disease and who live with others who are vulnerable to disease. Parents should know that the risks of serious outcomes with COVID-19 are rare, but almost entirely avoidable with vaccination. I don’t want to see cases go back up and schools overwhelmed with positive cases.

Can we enjoy spring and summer, going to events and on vacation without full-time masks and fear, given the low transmission rates?

If transmission rates remain low, and there isn’t a concerning variant on the horizon, yes, of course. I certainly plan to enjoy events and vacation. I am vaccinated and boosted, but will still wear a mask in some situations because I don’t like getting sick.


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