BA.4, BA.5, 2 new variants of Omicron discovered in the United States

BA.4, BA.5, 2 new variants of Omicron discovered in the United States, could lead to another COVID wave. Research shows that these people would be better off.

Two new strains of COVID have arrived in the United States that appear to be more transmissible even than "hidden Omicron" and can evade antibodies from vaccination and previous infection. 

BA.4 and BA.5 - BA.1 - originated in South Africa. Bloomberg reported that cases are rising there last week even though nearly all South Africans have been vaccinated or have contracted the coronavirus. The National Institute of Infectious Diseases reported almost 4,000 new infections on Sunday alone. Among those tested for COVID, 22% had positive results. The World Health Organization initially recommended levels of less than 5% for communities wishing to reopen after the first wave of COVID.

COVID-vaccinated people with Omicron may get sick well if they develop the subvariants. A senior COVID researcher from South Africa told Fortune that they probably wouldn't need to be hospitalized or die.

"If you are vaccinated and take Omicron, your protection is decent, at least from severe disease," said Alex Segal, a professor at the Africa Institute of Health Research in South Africa. He's one of the authors of a new study that found that BA.4 and BA.5 can trigger a new wave of infection due to their ability to evade antibodies, both from vaccination and previous infection.

This is good news for many, but America's vaccination rates are not at the level they could be. According to the CDC, about 66.2% of the total population has been fully vaccinated, and only 45.8% have received a booster dose. Children under five still do not qualify for the vaccine.

Others will not be so lucky. Sigal says that those who had COVID before Omicron likely don't have much immunity to BA.4 and BA.5. Those infected with Omicron and who have not been vaccinated will not have a significant exemption. "It could go either way" for them, he said.

Bloomberg reported Thursday, citing South African COVID expert Tulio de Oliveira, head of institutes at the Universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Stellenbosch.

On Friday, Fortune was the first to report the arrival of both variants in the United States, citing several COVID-19 researchers with access to Gisaid. This international research database tracks changes in the COVID and influenza virus. The earliest sample of BA.4 was collected in the United States on March 30. The earliest example of BA.5 was collected in the United States on March 29.

But Sigal is not expecting a huge wave, given that Omicron has infected many people worldwide. Nor would he expect a "very severe wave in terms of disease severity," given the measure of protection - albeit low - that vaccination and previous omicron infection would provide.

They found that those previously infected but not vaccinated experienced about an eightfold decrease in neutralizing antibodies when exposed to the new subvariants. According to the study, those vaccinated and once infected experienced a slight threefold reduction.

Segal said he was surprised by the study's results. BA.4 and BA.5 were not expected to escape immunity well, especially given that the variants had only two changes compared to the original Omicron.

"But these are big changes," he said.

So far, the symptoms of the new variants look very similar to the typical O'Micron symptoms, which include fever, loss of smell, and malaise.

"I haven't seen the early symptoms of respiratory distress, which is the main symptom of COVID that makes this disease so dangerous," he said. "I don't feel good, but there's less chance of dying."

He said there is "good evidence" that COVID has become milder over time because it does not infect the lower respiratory tract, where permanent damage can occur. A dangerously low blood oxygen saturation can occur. New types of COVID are found in the upper respiratory tract, where they are not likely to cause serious illness.

Experts recently believed that a new and very different variant was needed to make a coil.

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