Well, here we go again. Once more, the ever-changing coronavirus behind COVID-19 is assaulting the United States in a new guise—BA.5, an offshoot of the Omicron variant that devastated the most recent winter. The new variant is spreading quickly, likely because it snakes past some of the immune defenses acquired by vaccinated people, or those infected by earlier variants. Those who have managed to avoid the virus for close to three years will find it a little harder to continue that streak, and some who recently caught COVID are getting it again. “People shouldn’t be surprised if they get infected, and they shouldn’t be surprised if it’s pretty unpleasant,” Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, told me.
That doesn’t mean we’re about to have a surge on the scale of what we saw last winter, or that BA.5 (and its close cousin BA.4) will set us back to immunological square one. Goldstein told me that he takes “some level of comfort” in the knowledge that, based on how other countries have fared against BA.5, vaccines are still keeping a lot of people out of hospitals, intensive-care units, and morgues. The new variant is not an apocalyptic menace.
But it can’t be ignored, either. Infections (and reinfections) still matter, and by increasing both, BA.5 is extending and deepening the pandemic’s ongoing burden. “We will not prevent all transmission—that is not the goal—but we have to reduce the spread,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the World Health Organization, told me. “It’s not over, and we are playing with fire by letting this virus circulate at such intense levels.” [Continue reading…]