Why this ‘very, very contagious’ coronavirus subvariant is causing cases to rise again

After a week-long plateau, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are rising again in the United States as a new, highly transmissible omicron subvariant rapidly makes its way to becoming the next dominant viral strain.

The current seven-day rolling average of cases has returned to its February level, with an average of 64,000 cases counted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday. This is about three times what it was towards the end of March.

The seven-day average for hospitalizations is also up 20%, with the CDC reporting an average of 2,215 admissions over the past seven days, up from an average of 1,845 the previous week.

Deaths from COVID-19 have remained near record highs.

This decline in deaths is likely due in part to current dominant variants that appear to be less lethal and high vaccination rates in the United States, Dr. Robert Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Tulane. As of this week, about 66% of the US population has been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

“Pre-existing immunity allows your body to handle infection better, but these variants are so contagious that they may not prevent you from getting infected,” he said.

While the dominant omicron subvariant BA.2, which currently accounts for nearly 62% of cases, appears to spread more easily than its predecessor, experts say another subvariant, BA.2.12.1 , appears to be even more transmissible. BA.2.12.1 is spreading about 24% faster than BA.2 and, based on current rates, could become the dominant variant in the coming weeks, according to the data.

As of last week, the omicron sub-variant BA.2 (seen in light pink) remains the dominant strain in the United States, although another sub-variant, BA.2.12.1 (seen in red), has quickly increase.

This increased transmissibility may be because BA.2.12.1 not only has the omicron variant BA.2 mutation, but two other mutations, Garry said.

“One of them allows the virus to replicate a little better (S704L). The other (L452Q) allows it to resist previous immunity,” he said of these two additional mutations of the peak protein.

“So BA.2.12.1 is more contagious. None of the omicron subvariants appear to induce more severe disease than the original omicron (BA.1). BA.1 appears less severe than delta, but, again, the role of pre-existing immunity is difficult to account for,” he added.

“We have a very, very contagious variant there. It’s going to be hard to make sure no one gets COVID in America,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said last week after a coronavirus test was announced. positive for Vice President Kamala Harris, who is fully vaccinated. and boosted twice.

Health officials have warned that while these current subvariants may be less severe, they could lead to long-term health issues.

The omicron subvariant called BA.2.12.1 is believed to be more infectious than the dominant BA.2 strain.  Vaccines may not prevent a person from becoming infected, but they should help prevent serious illness or death, health experts have said.
The omicron subvariant called BA.2.12.1 is believed to be more infectious than the dominant BA.2 strain. Vaccines may not prevent a person from becoming infected, but they should help prevent serious illness or death, health experts have said.

Chicago Tribune via Getty Images

“I think people sometimes say, well, it’s OK to be infected. No, it’s not, because there are things like the long COVID, and sometimes there are people, even if they don’t require hospitalization…they get seriously ill,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC “This Week” last month. “It’s not something to poop on.”

Elsewhere in the world, health officials are monitoring the spread of two less common subvariants of omicron: BA.4 and BA.5.

South African scientists have said that these subvariants, which have been blamed for a recent spike in cases in the country, are able to evade antibodies acquired during previous COVID-19 infection, but not the antibodies acquired during vaccination.

“It is too early to tell whether these new subvariants can cause more severe disease than other omicron subvariants, but early data suggest that vaccination remains protective against severe disease and death,” said said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization. at a press conference on Wednesday.

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