Information in Spanish
The Omicron wave of the current COVID-19 pandemic is not over. And the newer variant may still be the most contagious strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Sub-variant BA.5 is now the predominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States, spreading rapidly and causing new infections. BA.5 is a sub-variant of the first Omicron strain, also known as BA.1. As scientists continue to learn more about the new variant, here’s what is known:
BA.5 is highly transmissible
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), Omicron spreads more easily than previous variants of COVID-19. And since BA.5 is a sub-variant of Omicron, it is proving to be more transmissible. The virus has become more efficient at evading the immune system, leading to an increase in COVID-19 infections.
BA.5 circumvents immunity
Breakthrough infections are becoming more common as the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to evolve and mutate. This is especially true with BA.5. “Each of these subvariants has improved over the previous one in infecting people who have been vaccinated or previously infected,” says Stephen Goldstein, PhD, a virologist at the University of Utah’s Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine. Those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or who have recently been infected with another recent variant are at risk for BA.5 infection.
The good news is that vaccinations and booster vaccinations still protect you from getting seriously ill. “It’s really important that people understand that vaccines are unlikely to provide long-term protection from infection, but they significantly increase the likelihood that your illness will be brief and not serious,” says Goldstein.
If so, why can you still get reinfected with BA.5? After you received a COVID-19 vaccine or became infected with the virus, Goldstein explains, your immune system has built many layers, including antibodies and memory T cells that target the virus. If introduced into a different variant of COVID-19, those antibodies also do not recognize the new variant because the virus has acquired mutations and looks different. This makes it harder for the immune system to quickly recognize and block the new variant of the virus. After infection, the immune system launches another line of defense: memory T cells. Research has shown that these late-acting T cells remained effective against the new variants and still provide protection from serious disease.
Symptoms of BA.5 are similar to previous COVID-19 variants
At this time, the symptoms of BA.5 appear to be similar to those caused by other Omicron sub-variants. Common symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat, muscle pain, and fatigue. However, Goldstein notes that the symptoms of COVID-19 appear to be less severe overall than previous variants, such as Delta. In part, this is because more people have been vaccinated or infected with the COVID-19 virus.
COVID-19 vaccines work against BA.5
Vaccines against COVID-19 continue to protect people from developing serious diseases, especially for those receiving a booster dose. A COVID-19 booster shot helps maximize your protection. Vaccines also help prevent hospitalization and death, with lower rates for BA.5 than previous COVID-19 variants.
“There’s definitely a good reason to stay up to date on vaccines: get boosts and get vaccinated,” says Goldstein.
Due to the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has advised vaccine manufacturers to update their COVID-19 vaccines starting in fall 2022 to protect themselves from the Omicron variant. “If BA.5 is still the dominant variant in the fall, then it will be a really good match,” says Goldstein. The annual COVID-19 vaccine update would be similar to the current flu vaccine update practice on an annual basis.
Wearing a mask adds more protection
People with immunocompromised or high-risk diseases should continue to wear a good quality mask when indoors or gathering with a large group of people.
The CDC also recommends wearing a mask indoors in public if the COVID-19 community level you live in is medium or tall.
“I think we all know people who have been infected, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or previously infected, and are now infected again,” says Goldstein. “If you want to minimize your chances of getting infected with the virus, the best protection is a COVID-19 vaccine, a booster and a high-quality mask.”