The BA.2 variant of Omicron now accounts for 35 percent of new Covid infections in the U.S., and more than 50 percent in New York and New England. But experts from the Centers for Disease Control say that cases overall will be less severe.
“As we’re learning from our colleagues in Europe, Asia and South Africa, the BA.2 has resulted in varied peaks of cases. But there is no evidence that the BA.2 variant results in more severe disease, nor does it appear to be more likely to evade immune protection,” said Dr. John Brooks, senior science adviser to the CDC’S Covid-19 Emergency Response team.
Brooks and Dr. Shannon Stokely, co-lead of the Vaccine Task Force at the CDC’S Covid-19 Emergency Response team, spoke March 25 at a news briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services, in collaboration with the CDC.
Brooks cautioned that the BA.2 variant does have an increased rate of transmission in comparison to the first variant of Omicron that arrived in the US last winter and caused peaks in infections throughout the country.
The CDC is watching closely the rise of infections in the Northeast to determine if there is also an uptick in the severity of the disease, said Brooks. The agency has pivoted to monitoring potential increases in cases and transmission through its Covid-19 Wastewater surveillance system. Over the past two weeks, the CDC has seen increasing wastewater signals in New York City and parts of New England and a correlating increase in the number of new infections, as well as some increased hospitalizations, he reported.
The CDC is also looking at any changes in genomic surveillance that monitors for circulating variants.
“I would like to emphasize that if cases rise from the Omicron variant or for any other variant, we have the tools, we have vaccines, we have testing, and we have Therapeutics and we are prepared to react,” concluded Brooks.
Stokely noted that the US thus far has administered 159 million doses of the available Covid vaccines, nearly three times the number administered during a typical flu season. The majority of vaccines distributed in the U.S. are the mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. “These vaccines have been proven safe and effective at preventing complications from Covid-19, including severe disease, hospitalization and death.”
Pivoting to the question on the minds of parents with young children, Stokely addressed the issue of when vaccines might become available for children under 5-years-old. She noted there are multiple manufacturers that are conducting clinical trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine for very young children. The results of the rigorous clinical trials must then be presented to the FDA for emergency use authorization before the vaccine can be administered to under-5s.
The trials will take into account the side effects of the vaccine in young children, including fatigue, soreness at the injection site, and myocarditis, a rare symptom for some young people.
“We are in a much stronger position than we were two years ago with the tools we need, including vaccines and boosters, that are protecting people from hospitalization and death, said Stokely.
“If you are boosted, you are 21 times less likely to die from covid-19. So the vaccination Remains the most effective and safest way to prevent Covid-19. And I encourage everyone to remain up to date on their covid-19 vaccinations,” she said.
Brooks addressed the issue of global vaccine equity. Currently, less than 7 percent of the developing world has received a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
“We live in one world, and we’re only as safe as a plane ride away,” he said, “So it’s important that we protect everyone in our world community.”
“Untreated covid-19 infections are the source of new variants. People who are not vaccinated and become infected can become the source of new emerging variants,” added Brooks. “By preventing infection, we prevent the emergence of new variants, and reduce the threat of Covid worldwide.”