Over the past few months, experts had expressed optimism that the BA.5 variant accounted for almost all COVID cases as new recalls, specifically designed to target this variant, were rolled out.
But now other omicron sub-variants are increasing in number and BA.5’s dominance is waning just as colder temperatures set in and people head inland. So what does this mean for the coming months, which have historically seen some of the biggest COVID surges of the pandemic so far?
Chicago’s top doctor answered that question during a Facebook Live on Tuesday, saying she was “a little concerned” about the change in variants.
“But the reason we’re still low risk — and that’s why we’re doing this low, medium, and high risk for the variants — is because it’s all still omicron,” the Department of Health commissioner said. Chicago Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady, noting that the variants currently in circulation remain subvariants of the omicron strain that wreaked havoc across the country last winter.
That’s good news, she said, because experts believe the new bivalent COVID boosters, which were formulated to target the omicron variant, and later modified to specifically address the BA.4 and BA variants. 5, can also protect against other circulating omicron subvariants, such as BA.4.6 or BF.7.
The White House said Tuesday that eligible Americans should get updated COVID-19 boosters by Halloween to have maximum protection against the coronavirus by Thanksgiving and the holidays, as it warned of a season of “difficult” virus to come.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said the United States has the tools, both vaccines and treatments, to largely eliminate serious illness and death from the virus, but stressed that this was only the case if people did their part.
“We are not powerless in the face of these challenges,” he said. “What happens this winter is up to us.”
So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only about 11.5 million Americans have received the updated vaccines. Jha said studies suggest that if more Americans get updated vaccines, “we could save hundreds of lives every day this winter.”
“If we don’t get a lot of people to get this updated vaccine this fall, we’re really not very well prepared for the potential of a new variant,” Arwady said. “I really hope we don’t see any, but that’s really the question every time there’s another COVID infection. It’s the opportunity for a new variant to potentially emerge. C that’s how they emerge.”
Yet it remains unclear whether these new bivalent boosters will protect against infection in general, with studies still underway even as Americans get vaccinated.
Germany’s health minister warned in late September that the country is experiencing a steady rise in COVID-19 cases as autumn approaches, and urged older people to receive the new COVID booster shots. Other European countries like France, Denmark and the Netherlands are also seeing an increase in cases, Karl Lauterbach told reporters in Berlin.
“We are clearly at the start of a winter surge,” he said.
Despite the adoption of the vaccine, Arwady said she still expects an increase in the coming months.
“I haven’t seen anything really scary on the horizon yet, but I think we’re going to see a surge of COVID. I’d be the happiest person alive if we got there in February or March and we don’t even have haven’t seen a small surge of COVID, just because it’s respiratory season and the way we see flu and RSV and everything else increasing in the winter, I think we’re expecting at least a surge of COVID” , she said. “The question is really what does it look like with the variants?”
As of October 8, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the BA.5 variant continued to decline in numbers, accounting for 79.2% of cases in the United States, down from the 81.5% reported the week last. Meanwhile, BA.4.6 rose to 13.6% and BF.7 to 4.6%.
Arwady noted that while mutations have so far remained under the omicron umbrella, a new variant could emerge that is not a subvariant of omicron, leading to a much greater challenge in the fight against COVID.
“Variants are the million dollar question when it comes to this winter in COVID,” Arwady said. “All sub-variants…whether it’s the new [BF.7], whether BA.4.6 – these are still subvariants of omicron. So that’s good news in that even when we see continued evolution of the omicron variant, it’s all still in the omicron family, which means people who have had an omicron infection would likely have at least some protection and, most importantly, people who get the updated vaccine will have better protection against anything that continues to evolve in the omicron space. The big question is do we get another emergence of a genetically very different variant in that omicron was very genetically different, Delta was very genetically different, Alpha was very genetically different. We haven’t had a big new genetically different variant since last December, January. It’s been almost a year.”