Experts explain variants and emerging vaccines

As variants of COVID continue to emerge, it’s easy to get confused about what’s circulating. (Photo: Getty Images)

With several variants of COVID circulating at once, and as new ones continue to emerge, it can be difficult to keep track of them all, let alone know how worrisome each one is.

Adding to the confusion is a sense of mixed messages. For one thing, mask requirements continue to be reduced, most recently in some hospitals and nursing homes in certain situations, and hospitalizations and deaths from COVID are declining. But on the other hand, new contagious variants keep arriving, and there are still, on average, nearly 350 people dying from COVID every day in the US, even though experts say we’re not out of the woods yet.

Dr. Stuart Ray, professor of medicine and vice president of medicine for data integrity and analytics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Yahoo Life, “While I think the consensus is that the pandemic is not over because disruptions due to this infection over the coming months are unpredictable (this is not yet a seasonally endemic virus), the worst is likely to be behind us if we take reasonable steps to protect our population,” including vaccinations and boosters.

However, warns Ray, “If we relax completely, we are more likely to see widespread infections” and “severe infections in those with low levels of immunity,” along with more variants evolving.

With all that in mind, how concerned should you be about Omicron’s latest emerging variants? And how well do the new dual-purpose boosters protect them? Here’s what experts know so far.

What do we know about the latest emerging variants?

Although the Omicron BA.5 variant is still by far the most common infecting people in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors multiple variants, tracks three emerging strains of Omicron whose number is increasing. They are BA.4.6, BF.7 and BA.2.75.

BA.4.6 in particular is gaining ground, and is currently the second most common variant after BA.5. Variants BF.7 — “short for BA.5.2.1.7, so it’s a subvariant of BA.5,” Ray explains — and BA.2.75 (along with its subvariant BA.2.75.2) are also “growing as a proportion of new cases in the US,” he says. Ray points out that these variants are “highly evolved to escape immune responses to earlier variants.”

Some experts, however, say more information is still needed. “The critical questions for new variants are always related to three concepts: transmissibility, severity, and degree of evasion of vaccine coverage,” Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life . “It is too early to draw any definitive conclusions about these concepts.”

That said, there is some possible good news. “Historically, newer variants like Omicron have generally been milder than earlier strains of the virus,” says Kulkarni.

Will bivalent drivers help protect against these emerging variants?

The new bivalent boosters from Pfizer and Moderna were reformulated to protect against severe disease, hospitalization, and death from the Omicron BA.5 and BA.4 subvariants. “Fortunately, recent vaccination seems to help protect us from these diseases [new variants]”, he says, “and our updated bivalent enhancers are more likely to safely enhance this protection.”

However, Kulkarni says we’ll know more in the “coming days and weeks” as these emerging variants likely gain more ground, adding, “It’s a little early to know for sure.”

What steps should people take now to protect themselves?

At this point in the pandemic, the mitigation measures people can take should be based on their “personal risk tolerance” and the risk of a serious outcome from a severe COVID-19 infection, says Kulkarni . “If someone is severely immunocompromised or elderly or has significant medical comorbidities, for example, they may want to take extra precautions,” he says, such as wearing a high-quality, well-fitting mask.

Another reason to be cautious: Ray notes that data shows that repeated infections with COVID “increase the risk of future cardiovascular and mental health complications, suggesting that people should try to limit infection while they have a life as normal as possible.”

He adds: “Finding that balance involves assessing our own risk and the risk of the people we serve, and recognizing that we have tools like high-quality masks, rapid tests and vaccines that can help us achieve greater resilience against this virus. “

Will new variants keep coming? And in response to this, reformulated boosters?

More than likely, experts say. “New variants are likely to continue to emerge over time,” says Kulkarni, who notes that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is expected to continue circulating for many years. “The critical question regarding updated vaccines is the extent to which prior vaccination and/or infection-induced immunity will prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death in the future. This will determine the need for a push strategy to move forward”.

Ray shares that there is ongoing research looking for new vaccines that provide “longer protection against new variants by targeting more persistent parts of the virus.”

It is also possible for boosters to become annual like the flu shot. “But even for this virus there are promising leads in vaccines that will generate protection that will last for years,” says Ray, referring to current trials for a universal, long-acting flu vaccine that targets several flu virus at the same time.

“For now,” he says, “we have the tools we have, and we’re doing everything we can to protect the vulnerable among us and prevent infections and overwhelming waves.”

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