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BA.5, part of the Omicron family, is latest version of coronavirus cause widespread waves of infection worldwide.
According to the latest World Health Organization report, it was responsible for 52% of cases identified at the end of June, compared to 37% in one week. It is estimated to cause about 65% of infections in the United States.
Rising case numbers
BA.5 is not new. First detected in January, it has been tracked by the WHO since April.
It is a related variant of the Omicron strain that has dominated the world since late 2021 and has already caused spikes in cases – even with reduced testing – in countries including South Africa, where it was first detected, as well as the UK, parts of Europe and Australia.
WHO data showed that cases of coronavirus worldwide have been on the rise for four weeks in a row.
Why is it spreading
Like its close relative, BA.4, BA.5 is especially good at immune defense evasion as a result of vaccination or previous infection.
For this reason, “BA.5 has a growth advantage over other Omicron circulating sub-lines,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said at a briefing on Tuesday.
For many people, this means they are re-infected, often even shortly after contracting COVID-19. Van Kerkhove said the WHO is evaluating reports of reinfections.
“We have ample evidence that people infected with Omicron become infected with BA.5. There is no doubt about it,” said Gregory Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The researchers speculated that if this seems particularly common now, it may simply be because so many people have received Omicron.
There is no more serious
While the rise in cases has led to more hospitalizations in some countries, deaths have not increased dramatically.
This is largely because vaccines continue to protect against severe illness and death, if not infection, and manufacturers and regulators are also considering modified vaccines that directly target newer variants of Omicron.
There is also no evidence that BA.5 is more dangerous than any other Omicron option, the WHO’s Van Kerkhove stressed, although spikes in cases could compromise health services and expose more people to prolonged COVID-19.
The WHO and other experts have also said that the ongoing pandemic, dragged on by vaccine disparities and the desire of many countries to “go beyond” COVID-19, will only lead to new and unpredictable options.
Scientists are already looking at BA.2.75, first identified in India, which has a large number of mutations and is spreading rapidly.
On Tuesday, the WHO said the pandemic remains a global health emergency and countries should consider public health measures such as masking and social distancing as cases increase, along with vaccinations.
“What people fundamentally don’t understand is that with such a high level of transmission of the virus in the community, it will mutate,” Poland said. “Who knows what will happen next. We are playing with fire.”