While the Omicron surge appears to be waning in some regions of the United States, some experts are cautioning that progress against the coronavirus could be hindered by the arrival of a highly contagious new Omicron subvariant, BA.2.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former director of the US Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday that pandemic numbers were “coming down, and coming down quite sharply in parts of the Northeast, Florida, the mid-Atlantic,” but said “you might see, as this new strain starts to pick up, you might see that we start to slow down in that decline.”
Gottlieb said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” that “the decline will happen nonetheless” and he didn’t expect “a huge wave of infection.”
“We have so much Omicron immunity that’s probably going to be a backstop against this really taking off,” said Gottlieb, who is now a board member of Pfizer.
Thomas Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, also said in The New York Times this weekend that the arrival of BA. 2 “may mean higher peak infections in places that have yet to peak, and a slowdown in the downward trends in places that have already experienced peak Omicron.”
BA.2, which is a cousin of BA.1, the original version of Omicron, has been found in more than 50 countries, including the United States, where, according to one expert’s estimate last week, it already accounts for 8 percent of cases.
It is now predominant in Denmark - and researchers there have been studying it. In a preprint study released Sunday, researchers said they had found that “BA.2 is inherently substantially more transmissible than BA.1, and that it also possesses immune-evasive properties that further reduce the protective effect of vaccination against infection.”
Previous preliminary research from Denmark has suggested there is no difference in the risk of hospitalization for BA.2 compared with the original Omicron variant, which causes less severe disease than the Delta variant it replaced in December.
“For public health, it is reassuring that BA.2, like BA.1, seems to be associated with favorable outcomes relative to the Delta variant, and that vaccines protect in particular against hospital admissions and severe illness,” the researchers from the Statens Serum Institut (SSI), Copenhagen University, Statistics Denmark, and Technical University of Denmark, wrote in the preprint.
The researchers emphasized that “even with the emergence of BA.2, vaccines have an effect against infection, transmission and severe disease, although reduced compared to the ancestral variants.”
While the spread of less-severe variants has “raised optimism,” the paper said, it is “important to follow the future evolution of the BA.2 subvariant closely, as well as future emergent subvariants.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.