What’s so “special” about SARS-CoV-2 Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5?

BA.4 and BA.5 now account for the majority of Covid cases in the U.S.1  Several concerning features of BA.4 and BA.5 when compared to earlier strains of SARS-CoV-2 include:2-6

  1. High reproductive rate or R0 ie, the average number of new infections generated by an infectious person in a totally naïve population. BA.4/5 has an estimated R0 of 18.6, according to a one report.  For comparison, the R0 for the original Wuhan variant was estimated at 3.3, for Delta  5.1, early Omicron  9.5, BA.1 13.3, mumps 12, and measles 18.  So, it’s not surprising that we are currently experiencing higher rates of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the population than just a few weeks ago.3
  2. Suboptimal existing immunity following prior infections due to Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.2, or prior vaccinations (including 3 doses of Pfizer vaccine).2,4
  3. More efficient spread than BA.2 when studied in human lung cells invitro. 2
  4. More pathogenic than BA.2 in hamsters. 2
  5. Reduced activity of SARS-CoV-2 therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.4
  6. Antigenically distant from other SARS-CoV-2 variants, with 50 mutations, including more than 30 on the spike protein, the viral protein targeted by Covid vaccines to induce immunity.5,6

Despite these potentially ominous traits, currently there is no evidence that  BA.4 or BA.5 is inherently more likely to cause severe disease than that caused by other Omicron subvariants.   The sheer number of infected persons in the population due to high transmission rates, however, will likely translate into higher hospitalization and deaths which has already happened in many areas.

High transmission rates also mean that we should not abandon the usual public health measures (eg, social distancing, masking indoors in public spaces) and vaccination with boosters for eligible persons with the aim of reducing hospitalization and death, if not infections.  

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that BA.4 and BA.5 became dominant in South Africa in April, 2022, despite 98% of the population reportedly having some antibodies from vaccination or previous infection or both?  

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References

  1. Leatherby L. What the BA.5 subvariant could mean for the United States. NY Times, July 7, 2022. https://theconversation.com/australia-is-heading-for-its-third-omicron-wave-heres-what-to-expect-from-ba-4-and-ba-5-185598
  2. Kimura I, Ymasoba D, Tamura T, et al. Virological characteristics of the novel SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variants including BA.2.12.1, BA.4 and BA.5. bioRxiv, preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.05.26.493539 , posted May 26, 2022. Accessed July, 13, 2022.
  3. Esterman D. The Conversation. Australia is heading for its third Omicron wave. Here’s what to expect from BA.4 and BA.5. July 4, 2022. https://theconversation.com/australia-is-heading-for-its-third-omicron-wave-heres-what-to-expect-from-ba-4-and-ba-5-185598
  4. Tuekprakhon A, Nutalai R, Dijokaite-Guraliuc A, et al. Antibody escape of SARS-COV-2 Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 from vaccine and BA.1 serum.
  5. Katella K. Omicron and BA.5: A guide to what we know. YaleMedicine, July 6, 2022. https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/5-things-to-know-omicron
  6. Topol E. The BA.5 story. The takeover by this Omicron sub-variant is not pretty. Ground Truths. June 27, 2022. https://erictopol.substack.com/p/the-ba5-story

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, their affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

What’s so “special” about SARS-CoV-2 Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5?

Why is the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 increasingly becoming a “variant of concern” in the current Covid-19 pandemic?

The Delta variant (B.1.617.2, formerly India variant) has become an increasingly prevalent strain of SARS-Cov-2 causing Covid-19 in many countries outside of India, including the United States and United Kingdom, particularly affecting younger unvaccinated persons.  Several features of the Delta variant are of particular concern. 1-7

  1. Delta virus appears to be more transmissible when compared to previously emerged variant viruses. Data from new Public Health England (PHE) research suggests that the Delta variant is associated with a 64% increased risk of household transmission compared with the Alpha variant (B.,1.1.7, UK variant) and 40% more transmissibility in outdoors. 1,8  
  2. Delta virus is also associated with a higher rate of severe disease, doubling the risk of hospitalization based on preliminary data from Scotland. In vitro, it replicates more efficiently than the Alpha variant with higher respiratory viral loads.5
  3. Delta virus may also be associated with reduced vaccine effectiveness with increased vaccine breakthroughs. One study found that Delta variant is 6.8-fold more resistant to neutralization by sera from Covid-19 convalescent and mRNA vaccinated individuals.5 Fortunately, a pre-print study released by PHE in May 2021 found that 2 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were still 88% effective against symptomatic infection with Delta variant  (vs 93% for the Alpha variant) and 96% effective against hospitalization; 1 dose was only 33% effective against symptomatic disease (vs 50% for the Alpha variant).  Two doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine were 60% effective against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant.8 
  4. Aside from its somewhat unique epidemiologic features, Covid-19 caused by Delta variant seems to be behaving differently (starting out as a “bad cold” or “off feeling”), with top symptoms of headache, followed by runny nose and sore throat with less frequent fever and cough; loss of sense of smell was not common at all based on reported data to date.1

What the Delta variant reminds us is, again, the importance of vaccination, masks and social distancing. The pandemic is still with us!

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that, on average, a Delta variant-infected person may transmit it to 6 other contacts (Ro~6.0) compared to 3 others (Ro~3) for the original SARS-CoV-2 strains found during the early part of the pandemic?1

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References

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-57467051
  2. Knodell R. Health Advisory: Emergence of Delta variant of coronavirus causing Covid-19 in USA. Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services. 23 June, 2021. https://health.mo.gov/emergencies/ert/alertsadvisories/pdf/update62321.pdf
  3. Kupferschmidt K, Wadman M. Delta variant triggers new phase in the pandemic. Science 25 June 2021; 372:1375-76. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/372/6549/1375.full.pdf
  4. Sheikh A, McMenamin J, Taylor B, et al. SARS-CoV-2 Delta VOC in Scotland: demographics, risk of hospital admission, and vaccine effectiveness. Lancet 2021; 397:2461-2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8201647/
  5. Mlcochova P, Kemp S, Dhar MS, et al. Sars-Cov-2 B.1.617.2 Delta variant emergence and vaccine breakthrough. In Review Nature portfolio, posted 22 June, 2021. https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-637724/v1
  6. Bernal JL, Andrews N, Gower C, et al. Effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines against the B.1.617.2 variant. MedRxiv, posted May 24, 2021. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.22.21257658v1 vaccine efficacy
  7. Allen H, Vusirikala A, Flannagan J, et al. Increased household transmission of Covid-19 cases associatd with SARS-Cov-2 variant of concern B.1.617.2: a national case control study. Public Health England. 2021. https://khub.net/documents/135939561/405676950/Increased+Household+Transmission+of+COVID-19+Cases+-+national+case+study.pdf/7f7764fb-ecb0-da31-77b3-b1a8ef7be9aa  Accessed June 27, 2021.
  8. Callaway E. Delta coronavirus variant: scientists brace for impact. Nature. 22 June 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01696-3 

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis or its affiliate healthcare centers, Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School or its affiliated institutions. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author.

Why is the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 increasingly becoming a “variant of concern” in the current Covid-19 pandemic?