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As COVID-19 Cases Rise, New Variant Poses Major Challenge

A health worker preparing the a Pfizer vaccine.
A health worker preparing the a Pfizer vaccine.

Cases of COVID-19 are surging again globally, due in large part to the rise of virus variant Omicron BA.5, which is much more contagious than its predecessors and is able to circumvent existing immunity in many people.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released data indicating that the BA.5 variant is now responsible for more than half of new cases and is poised to continue outcompeting older versions of the Omicron variant that remain in circulation.

The new variant is also carving its path across other countries. In the Americas, Brazil and Mexico are both experiencing upticks. In Europe, cases are on the rise across the continent, including in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Greece, among others. The United Kingdom is experiencing a rise as well.

In Asia, cases are rising in Japan, South Korea and India, among others. Cases are also climbing in Australia and New Zealand.

‘Worst’ variant yet

Public health experts are warning that despite the fact that death rates from COVID-19 remain low in the U.S., the Omicron BA.5 variant remains a major concern. Evidence suggests that a recent prior infection with COVID-19 offers little or no protection against reinfection with the new variant.

During past waves, it has typically been assumed that an individual who had recovered from a bout of COVID-19 would have enhanced immune protection against reinfection for a significant period of time.

“The Omicron subvariant BA.5 is the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen,” Dr. Eric Topol, a member of the Department of Molecular Medicine at Scripps Research, wrote in his popular Substack newsletter. “It takes immune escape, already extensive, to the next level, and, as a function of that, enhanced transmissibility, well beyond Omicron (BA.1) and other Omicron family variants that we’ve seen.”

Even though people appear to be less likely to get extremely sick from the new variant, public health experts say that they are concerned about the possibility that as infections increase, more people will come down with lingering symptoms. So-called long COVID, which can include fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction and other adverse health events, has been detected in as many as one in five people who survive an infection.

Public health challenge

Rising case counts have public health experts deeply concerned about what will take place in the coming months.

“Right now, the public health stance should be maximizing vaccination, including boosters for those who are eligible and primary vaccination and boosters for children,” David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a public health foundation, told VOA. “That's the absolutely critical, essential first step in a public health campaign to reduce the impact of COVID. That also should include planning for, we hope, a more specific vaccine in the fall against the Omicron variants.”

Blumenthal said he believed that the threat of long COVID meant that it also makes sense for people to continue wearing masks in public during surges in infection. However, he said he recognized that calling for more restrictions presented a serious challenge to public health officials, who will find themselves trying to persuade a pandemic-weary public to embrace masking again.

“I think that civic leaders — respected, nonmedical leaders, as well as personal physicians — are probably the best communicators at this point,” he said.

US in detail

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, in the 90 days ending on July 6, the average number of daily cases over the previous seven days in the U.S. rose to 106,193, from 34,795. However, the actual number of cases is believed to be far higher, because the prevalence of at-home testing means that the majority of cases are not reported to public health agencies.

The same data set shows that over the same 90-day period, the seven-day average of people hospitalized for COVID-19 rose to 35,637, from 14,904. While that marked a significant upward move in percentage terms, the absolute number of people currently hospitalized for the disease remains far below the more than 807,000 recorded at the peak in January.

Deaths from COVID-19 have actually fallen over the past 90 days, with a seven-day average of 309 recorded on July 6, compared with 507 recorded 90 days earlier. The current death rate remains near all-time lows since the beginning of the pandemic.

China changes direction

In China this week, Beijing became the first major city in the mainland to adopt a vaccination requirement for people to enter public spaces. Starting Monday, individuals will have to provide proof of vaccination to enter a broad range of public buildings in the city.

As recently as September of last year, the Chinese government had been explicitly against mandatory vaccination.

Wu Liangyou, a senior official with the National Health Commission, criticized municipalities that had instituted requirements like those coming into force in the capital, and said that all vaccination programs ought to remain voluntary.

Unlike many other countries, China has pursued what has been called a zero-COVID approach to managing the pandemic. The government has implemented major lockdowns across the country in efforts to slow or stop the spread of the disease.

The city of Xian, in the northwest of the country, is currently locked down because of a major outbreak of the disease caused by the new variant.

China was initially slow to roll out vaccines, even to older members of the population, who remain the most vulnerable to the disease. Now, however, Johns Hopkins data indicate that nearly 90% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Whether Beijing’s decision to mandate vaccination for access to public spaces marks the beginning of a turn away from the lockdown-focused, zero-COVID policy is unclear.