It felt to many people like the Omicron wave of January 2022 would be the last COVID surge. Sure, we knew the disease was going to stick around for the foreseeable future, but it seemed like it was becoming endemic rather than continuing the full-fledged COVID-19 pandemic — at least in the United States. Most people relaxed their precautions as rates dipped low, but now BA.2 is threatening to blow everything up again. If you’re feeling done with COVID, we understand.
So, as concisely as possible, this is what you need to know about BA.2 and the threat it poses.
What is BA.2?
BA.2 is a new COVID subvariant. It’s not a truly new variant because it’s very closely related to Omicron — also known as BA.1. It comes from the same genetic lineage.
Both Omicron variants probably first arose in November 2021 in Botswana, South Africa, in Denmark, and then in the United Kingdom, according to Nature. Whilst BA.1 was most responsible for the spike in cases over the first portion of winter, BA.2 has started to win over Omicron since February 2022.
How prevalent is BA.2 in the United States?
As of March 19th, 35% of COVID infections in the United States were due to BA.2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is a rapidly growing slice of U.S. infections as, as BA.2 had only accounted for 22% of cases the week of March 12th. In fact, some experts think BA.2 already accounts for at least half of new cases in the U.S. And if it’s not yet, it will be soon.
Is BA.2 more transmissible than Omicron?
Unfortunately, it is. Researchers from Denmark concluded that “Omicron BA.2 is inherently substantially more transmissible than BA.1.” It appears to be spreading anywhere from 30% to 60% faster than the original Omicron, according to experts. However, the difference in transmissibility between BA.1 and BA.2 is less than the difference between Omicron and Delta, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Is BA.2 more deadly than Omicron?
It doesn’t seem so, no. Although it’s more infectious, it’s not more virulent — meaning that it’s not more potent in its effects on the body, according to Science.
Some preliminary research from the United Kingdom and Denmark has shown that, in fact, BA.2 doesn’t cause a higher rate of hospitalization compared to BA.1. Research from South Africa shows that the risk of its deadliness is similar to that of BA.1.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance of deaths rising down the line, though — BA.1 was considered milder than Delta initially, but because it infected so many people, it still caused record deaths in early 2022.
If I was infected by Omicron, can I get BA.2?
Since BA.1 and BA.2 are so closely related — BA.2 only has eight mutations more than BA.1 — there are higher chances that if you have contracted the original Omicron, you’re protected against BA.2, according to the WHO.
However, most people do not know which variant got them sick. That’s because neither antigen tests nor PCR tests will tell you that. You’d have to rely on counting roughly when you contracted COVID and which variant was most common at the time to take a stab at figuring that out.
And even if a previous Omicron infection has given you protection, it won’t last forever. Studies have shown that some people can get reinfected just 90 days after their last infection.
Do the vaccines work against BA.2?
Although research has shown that the vaccines do not work wonders against either of the Omicron variants — you can still get COVID from BA.1 or BA.2 even if you’ve had three doses of the vaccine — vaccination does offer strong protection against getting severely ill if you do get COVID. Data has shown that two doses of the mRNA vaccines give about 70% to 80% coverage against hospitalization and death from BA.1 and BA.2, and a booster brings that coverage up to 90%, according to a preprint study from Qatar that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Because boosters can be very helpful in fending off BA.2, both Pfizer and BioNTech are looking into providing a fourth shot for people over the age of 65.
Will the U.S. be hit with a huge BA.2 wave like China and Europe?
Experts just can’t tell yet.
A large swath of the U.S. population contracted BA.1. This means that, if those antibodies mostly work against BA.2, which they’re expected to, many people will be protected against BA.2. In fact, experts suggest that up to 73% of the population should be immune to Omicron by now.
There is also hope that an uptick in cases caused by BA.2 is circumstantial, not because of the subvariant’s power: regulations have been loosened, and there’s less mask-wearing and more traveling. This would mean the country has options for protecting itself against a surge — if people are willing to mask up again.
But not everybody agrees. A third of the U.S. population still isn’t fully vaccinated, and with COVID precautions relaxing, this could spell trouble. For these and other reasons, some areas of the country will be hit harder than others.
More plausibly than a surge, this new variant could create a situation of “prolonged transmission,” meaning that it might be a slower decrease in cases going forward, rather than a sharp decline, according to speculations by some experts such as epidemiologist Eric Topol. In fact, in the U.S., case declines are losing momentum and starting to plateau, according to Your Local Epidemiologist.
How will BA.2 affect kids?
Cities like New York City plan to loosen their rules on masks for kids in school if cases stay low. Yet, kids remain some of the most vulnerable to a new possible surge. That’s because only 28% of children ages 5 to 11, and 58% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17, have been fully vaccinated, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children under the age of 5 are still ineligible for the vaccine.
However, vaccine companies promise their time will come soon. Moderna announced that within the next few weeks it will apply for authorization of its vaccine for children younger than 6. Yet the protections it offers isn’t as high as was hoped: 44% among children aged 6 months to 2 years, and 37% for children 2 to 5 against symptomatic infections.
Omicron hit children particularly hard, with four times more kids being hospitalized for COVID than previously in the pandemic. It’s unclear whether BA.2 could do the same, but a preprint study from Hong Kong does suggest that this variant may be harsher for kids — with 18 times higher rates of hospitalization than for other variants. Still, the chances of children under the age of 12 dying from COVID continue to be very small.
It doesn’t help that the research on children’s response to Omicron is conflicting. Some papers show that most children who had COVID do not show antibodies after infection, but other research shows that 96% of children still had antibodies up to six months later.
One pattern does seem clear, according to Harvard University. The youngest children who cannot yet be vaccinated are less likely to contract the virus when they live in a community with many vaccinated children and adults around them.
Should families change their behavior now?
Preventing transmission is key here — just like it has been for the past two years. This doesn’t mean you should drastically change your behavior now, or be worried about sending your kids out in the world. Case rates are still low throughout much of the U.S. It’s just crucial to exercise caution and keep your eye on local transmission rates.
You can prepare for a potential surge by:
- Getting that booster, so you’re less likely to contract BA.2 and give it to your kids.
- Stocking up on at-home tests, so you can catch an infection early if you do contract the virus.
- Stocking up on N-95s and other high-quality masks.
- Explaining the science to your children to help put things into perspective and keep them calm.
- Reminding your child about good hand-washing techniques.
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