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What is BA.5, the variant causing a new wave of COVID-19?

Houston has recently seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, and officials say the BA.5 subvariant is largely to blame.

The sub-variant is a main reason Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have nearly doubled in the Houston area over the past month, Texas Medical Center officials said earlier this week. Similar increases in infections and hospitalizations have been seen in the United States

“It’s the dominant variant now in Houston, and really most of the United States and many places around the world,” said Dr. Wesley Long, pathologist and medical director of microbiology at Houston Methodist.

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The recent increase is partly due to the fact that BA.5 appears to be “the most transmissible viral agent we have seen from the COVID-19 family so far”, said disease expert Dr Peter Hotez. infectious diseases of Houston, at the Chronicle earlier this week.

Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said even fully vaccinated people can be at risk for infection.

BA.5 is a subvariant of omicron, the variant of the coronavirus that has been responsible for a wave of infections this winter. The World Health Organization has been tracking BA.5 for the past few months after identifying it and another subvariant, BA.4, in early 2022.

Here’s what you need to know about the variant responsible for the latest wave of COVID-19.

What is the diffusion of BA.5?

BA.5 currently accounts for 65% of all COVID-19 cases across the country, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three other omicron subvariants account for the rest of the cases.

BA. 5 is even more common in CDC Region 6, which includes Texas and four other states. It accounts for 68.3% of cases in the region.

Modeling indicates that by the end of the month, BA.5 could account for 90% of all cases in the Houston area, Long said.

“Levels of community transmission are currently quite high,” he said.

The BA.5 subvariant has been detected in at least 68 countries, including the UK, Luxembourg, Denmark and Germany among those with high numbers of cases.

Is it more transferable?

BA.5 is more transmissible than any of the previous strains of the coronavirus, experts have said. In fact, it may be one of the most infectious viruses we have ever seen.

“This subvariant, BA.5, is probably about as transmissible as measles, which so far has been the most transmissible agent we have faced,” said Dr Robert Atmar, professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine.

Experts have determined that BA.5 is significantly more infectious than omicron, which itself was more infectious than the delta variant and the original strain of the coronavirus.

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The increased transmissibility is likely due to some mutations inherent in the virus, Long said. It has three key mutations in the virus’ spike protein that allow it to better evade immune defences. As a result, people are reinfected much faster, Long said.

“We are now seeing reinfections much earlier than usual in previous waves,” Long said.

Is BA. 5 more serious?

Currently, there is no evidence that BA.5 causes more severe disease than earlier viral strains, Long and Atmar said.

“It doesn’t seem to cause any more serious illness on its own. Certainly not compared to what we saw at the start of the pandemic,” Atmar said.

However, they warned that an infection can still cause serious illness. That’s especially true for an older or immunocompromised person, Atmar said.

Experts have also warned that even mild illness can lead to long COVID, with symptoms including shortness of breath, fatigue and persistent brain fog for months after the initial infection.

What are the main symptoms associated with BA.5?

Many of the symptoms associated with BA.5 have also been seen with earlier strains of the virus. They include fever, muscle aches, cough, congestion, and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.

The omicron variants and its subvariants, however, appear less likely to cause loss of taste or smell, Atmar said.

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Long said the symptoms caused by BA.5 are similar to those we’ve seen throughout the pandemic.

“I don’t have definitive or statistically valid data to say the symptoms are different,” Long said.

Are vaccines effective against BA.5?

Unfortunately, several studies have suggested that the BA.5 subvariant appears to be more capable of evading the protection afforded by a vaccine or prior infection.

However, there is no evidence of a substantial reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines against serious diseases, experts said.

“All the evidence we have still shows that vaccines are incredibly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and death, even if you’re more likely to have symptomatic infection,” Long said.

Research has shown that vaccine effectiveness declines over time, which is why federal authorities have approved booster shots for anyone who is fully vaccinated.

As part of the response to BA.5, federal officials are considering expanding eligibility for a second vaccine booster to all adults, according to The New York Times. Currently, only people aged 50 and over are eligible for a second booster.

How can you protect yourself?

The best protection against BA.5 remains the same as previous strains of the virus, experts said. This includes getting fully vaccinated and boosted, as well as breaking face masks that might have gathered dust in a drawer.

“It’s time, if people stop wearing it, to consider putting their face masks back on when they go out in public,” Atmar said.

Wearing a face mask could be especially important if you’re going somewhere like a baseball game where you’re going to be around a lot of people, Atmar said.

Atmar and Long also urged anyone infected to seek out a drug like Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19. Studies have shown that the drug is 90% effective in reducing the risk of hospitalization or death.

“I think it helps manage the severity of the pandemic and manage the number of hospitalizations we’ve seen,” Long said.

Some people said they had trouble accessing the drug, despite efforts by the Biden administration to make it widely available, according to NPR. To get Paxlovid, you’ll need a prescription from a doctor or one of the 2,300 health centers, pharmacies or urgent care clinics that have been designated “test to treat” sites.

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