You may have been spreading the omicron variant without knowing it


Although the omicron BA.5 subvariant has emerged as the most contagious and immunoevasive iteration of COVID-19 to date, scientists have long known that many cases of COVID-19, regardless of the variant, are completely asymptomatic. But it wasn’t known with much certainty how often the average person was unknowingly contracting COVID.

Now, a new study reveals just how far people may be spreading the omicron strain of COVID-19 without even realizing it. Because omicron infections are often asymptomatic, it has long been assumed that people infected with omicron may unwittingly transmit the bug simply because they did not realize they had been infected.

As the recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open makes clear, more than half of the people who contracted the omicron strain of COVID-19 were asymptomatic and therefore likely did not know they had ever been infected.

Cedars-Sinai Hospital researchers examined blood samples submitted by 2,479 healthcare workers and patients during the period immediately preceding and during the initial omicron increase. Within this group, they found 210 individuals who appeared to have been recently infected with the omicron variant based on SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their blood. These participants were invited to provide regular health status updates. Soon, it was revealed that only 44% of the infected participants were aware that they had the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their bodies.

The explanation for why 56% of infected participants did not know seems obvious from one key statistic: only 10% reported having any adverse symptoms, and they usually attributed them to a cold or other infection


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Salon caught up with Susan Cheng, MD, MPH, the study’s corresponding author and director of the Healthy Aging Research Institute in the Department of Cardiology at the Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute, to find out at what point Omicron carriers have unwittingly fueled the growing pandemic.

“It’s hard to say,” Cheng told Salon via email, noting that “it’s hard to capture complete or comprehensive data on the state of infection in a given community or population at a given point in time and then at multiple points in time. over a certain period of time. period of time” which is what would be needed “to measure how fast a virus is spreading and what proportion of the spread is among people who didn’t know about it.” However, Cheng noted that “data from our study and others suggest that unrecognized infections likely played an important role in the spread of the virus throughout the pandemic.”

Sandy Y. Joung, MHDS, a Cedars-Sinai researcher and first author of the study, expressed a similar view in a statement about his research.

More than half of the people who contracted the omicron strain of COVID-19 were asymptomatic and therefore likely did not know they had ever been infected.

“The results of our study add to the evidence that undiagnosed infections can increase transmission of the virus,” Joung explained. “A low level of awareness of the infection likely contributed to the rapid spread of omicron.”

When Cheng was asked if, based on his research, he thinks people should try to get tested for omicron even if they are asymptomatic, the doctor described it as a “good question” and he said that based on other studies, as well as his own, “It is very reasonable to do rapid antigen testing in situations after there has been a known or strongly suspected exposure to someone with COVID.”

In order to gain better insight into omicron infections, the study authors said they would need to study a more diverse group of patients than those in this study, who were drawn entirely from a single field of employment (in this case, healthcare). .

“It often requires a large health care organization or an organization of a large number of people through some kind of structured effort to recruit and enroll large and diverse groups of individuals in a study,” Cheng explained, adding that this would to involve “. not just a single point of engagement, but an ongoing, repeated commitment to track how they’re doing with antibody measures and health status over time.”

Doctors at Cedars-Sinai are not alone in warning that a silent wave of omicron infections is putting the public at risk. Earlier this week, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, expressed concern that this would happen as she declared that she would be the first major American city to reinstate an indoor mask mandate.

“If we don’t act now, knowing that every previous wave of infections has been followed by a wave of hospitalizations and then a wave of deaths, it will be too late for many of our residents,” Bettigole explained. “This is our chance to get ahead of the pandemic, to put our masks on until we have more information about the severity of this new variant.”

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