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Health officials worry rapidly spreading COVID-19 omicron subvariant BA.5 could mutate into another strain

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Posted at 6:40 AM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-20 07:29:24-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla.  — The COVID-19 omicron BA.5 subvariant is the most transmissible one to date.

“It has a bunch of new features that allow it to avoid the pre-existing immunity that we have,” said Dr. Michael Teng, Virologist and Associate Professor for USF Health.

According to scientists, key mutations make BA.5 better at infecting our cells and getting past immunity, whether from vaccines or previous infections.

“People who had previous omicron back in the winter and springtime, there’s still a very good chance that they will become infected,” said Dr. David Berger, Board Certified Pediatrician for Wholistic Pediatrics and Family Care.

Although people who’ve been vaccinated or have some type of immunity are getting infected by BA.5, they do have partial protection.

“We’re not seeing nearly the same level of severity,” said Berger.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show at least 77.9% of new COVID-19 cases are the BA.5 subvariant.

“Right now, it is BA.5 that is the main variant, and the antibodies are just not sticking well to it,” said Berger.

Experts believe the number of cases is much higher than what’s being reported.

“The number, the actual case count that the CDC comes out with has got to be an undercount. We’ve seen that with the different wastewater sampling that we’ve seen in different parts of the country where they do have good wastewater surveillance,” said Teng.

Cases are being underreported because of at-home tests.

“I think there are a lot of people testing but not reporting,” said Teng.

Some researchers estimate for every one reported case, there are seven unreported cases.

“There’s a lot of virus out there. We can see that in hospitalizations going up for COVID,” said Teng.

With each mutation, COVID-19 seems to get even more infectious, and experts are not surprised.

“These viruses they change, they mutate. They try to avoid your immune system, so it’s not a surprise. The one thing about this virus is it’s doing it rapidly because it’s spreading rapidly,” said Teng.

“If you’ve been following these mutations as they go, it’s almost as if we’re not keeping up with it. It’s a smart virus that way. It’s modifying itself in such a way that the immune systems aren’t keeping up, the vaccines aren’t keeping up,” said Berger.

Health officials are concerned as case counts grow because the more the virus spreads, the more opportunity it has to mutate even more.

It’s doing this faster than companies are able to change the vaccines, although they plan to have a new booster shot in the fall that should offer protection against BA.5.

“Of course, the hope will be that we’re still on BA.4 and BA.5 and that it hasn’t gone to a six or a seven or some other Greek alphabet letter,” said Berger.

With the virus spread increasing, experts want people to start using mitigation measures again, like wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces.

“It’s really time to do as much as you can to try to prevent infection,” said Berger.

If you do get a BA.5 infection, doctors are reminding people that there are treatments that can help.

“Paxlovid, which is the oral anti-viral medication, does seem to be working just fine for these new subvariants,” said Berger.