Why experts are calling BA.5 the ‘Houdini’ of coronavirus variants

Why experts are calling BA.5 the ‘Houdini’ of coronavirus variants

With so many businesses and city and state governments having lifted their mask and social distancing requirements, many people believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. But it isn’t. COVID-19’s Omicron variant is still highly infectious, although thanks to vaccinations, many of the infections that are occurring are relatively mild and don’t require hospitalization. Dr. Anthony Fauci, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and “Real Time” host Bill Maher are among the many vaccinated Americans who have had milder COVID-19 infections and didn’t need to be hospitalized.

BA.5 is an Omicron subvariant, and according to Daily Beast reporter David Axe, it seems to be the most “contagious” version of COVID-19 yet.

“The latest subvariant of the novel coronavirus to become dominant in Europe, the United States and other places is…. in many ways, the worst so far,” Axe reports in an article published by the Beast on July 8. “The BA.5 subvariant of the basic Omicron variant appears to be more contagious than any previous form of the virus. It’s apparently better at dodging our antibodies, too — meaning it might be more likely to cause breakthrough and repeat infections.”

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Axe adds, “Vaccines and boosters are still the best defense. There are even Omicron-specific booster jabs in development that, in coming months, could make the best vaccines more effective against BA.5 and its genetic cousins. Still, BA.5’s ongoing romp across half the planet is a strong reminder that the COVID pandemic isn’t over.”

First reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, COVID-19 has — according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland — killed more than 6.3 million people worldwide, including over 1 million people in the United States. COVID-19 has been the world’s deadliest health crisis since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

The good news is that COVID-19 vaccines are saving lives. Vaccines don’t offer an iron-clad guarantee that one will never be infected with COVID-19, but they can mean the difference between a life-threatening infection and a milder infection.

“High levels of at least partial immunity from vaccines and past infection continue to prevent the worst outcomes: mass hospitalization and death,” Axe observes. “But globally, raw case numbers are surging, with serious implications for potentially millions of people who face a growing risk of long-term illness. Equally worrying, the latest wave of infections is giving the coronavirus the time and space it needs to mutate into even more dangerous variants and subvariants.”

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Dr. Irwin Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told the Beast, “The development of variants now is a freight train.”

According to Amy Larson, a reporter for San Francisco’s KRON-TV Channel 4, the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants now account for the majority of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told KRON, “The superpower of BA.4 and BA.5 is, if you had Omicron in January, you’re still going to be susceptible to getting BA.4 and BA.5. It’s the escape artist of COVID, the Houdini, because the spike protein looks so different, even (compared) to BA1. The front guards, the antibodies, are not recognizing it.”

Chin-Hong stresses that although BA.5 is very good at infecting people who have been fully vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19, those breakthrough infections generally aren’t life-threatening.

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Chin-Hong told KRON, “Even though (currently available vaccines) are not necessarily great right now at preventing the enemy at the front gate, when the enemy gets inside, it’s going to kick it out, and you’re not going to go to the hospital.”

New York Times reporter Dani Blum describes common BA.4 and BA.5 symptoms in an article published on July 6.

“Experts said that, in general, these subvariants do not have markedly divergent symptoms from earlier versions of Omicron,” Blum notes. “People infected with BA.4 and BA.5 may develop a cough, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, headaches and muscle pains. However, they are less likely to lose their senses of taste and smell, or to experience shortness of breath, as compared with those infected with Delta or other variants of the coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.”

Blum adds that the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Joseph Khabbaza is seeing a lot of upper respiratory symptoms with BA.4 and BA.5.

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“Anecdotally, (Khabbaza) said, he has seen more patients with painful sinus congestion and severe sore throats who have tested positive for COVID-19 while BA.4 and BA.5 have been circulating,” Blum reports. “Some of them thought they had strep throat because they were in so much pain, he said.”

In an editorial published on July 7, the Washington Post’s editorial board warns that there is a lesson to be learned from the BA.5 surge: the COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

“The pandemic is a relentless race against Mother Nature,” the Post’s editorial board writes. “Waves of infection took millions of lives, and only highly effective vaccines prevented even more deaths. Now, the coronavirus is speeding up once again, mutating, evading immunity and still on the march. The arrival of subvariant BA.5 should be a reminder that the finish line in this race is nowhere to be seen.”

The Post’s editorial board notes that Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, has described BA.5 as “the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen.”

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In an article posted on SubStack on June 27, Topol said of BA.5, “It takes immune escape, already extensive, to the next level, and, as a function of that, enhanced transmissibility.”

“Whether BA.5 will lead to more severe disease isn’t clear yet,” the Post’s editorial board observes. “But knowing that the virus is spreading should reinforce the need for the familiar mitigation measures: high-quality face masks, better air filtration and ventilation, and avoiding exposure in crowded indoor spaces…. The finish line is not yet in sight.”

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