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Can we keep up with the evolving COVID-19 subvariants?

A new study shows that each omicron mutation is increasingly likely to produce reinfection or a breakthrough infection. Here’s what experts are worried about

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An illustration of the omicron variant.

Symptoms for omicron can appear from two to 14 days after exposure. The symptoms for BA.4 and BA.5 are mostly mild, including fever, tiredness and a loss of smell.

Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

The new omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 are gaining momentum against other COVID-19 strains at an accelerated pace.

Driving the news: Reports from early June showed that these two lineages only constituted 6% and 7% of all cases in the United States. Four weeks later, the new variants account for more than half of all new infections in the country.

But a new study poses more concern: Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the findings reveal that each omicron mutation is increasingly likely to produce reinfection or a breakthrough infection, per ABC News.

What they’re saying: “It’s essentially an arms race,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, author of the recent study and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “As the population becomes more immune, the virus becomes more and more immune evasive.”

  • He added that current vaccines are still reducing the severity of the disease, which is “the most important goal of vaccination.”

State of play: It’s safe to say that these fast-evolving variants are complicating the vaccine update. Consider the “stealth” omicron or BA.2.12.1 strain, which now accounts for a little over 40% of cases, or the BA.2, which accounts for over 5% of cases. The BA.1 strain, meanwhile, accounts for none.

Keeping in mind the upcoming vaccine, which is slated to roll out later this year, what should that jab target? Should it take on the present omicron strains or prepare for other mutations?

  • “My concern is that there’s this huge focus on omicron, and the assumption that omicron is what we will be dealing with in the future,” Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, told Nature. “We have a strong track record of getting that wrong.”

Symptoms for omicron can appear from two to 14 days after exposure.