South of the border, BA.2.12.1 was responsible for just over 36 percent of new infections nationwide last week, and in some northeastern states, the variant has become dominant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New Jersey and New York, about 62 percent of new infections as of April 30 were from BA.2.12.1. CDC director Rochelle Wallinsky said preliminary research indicates that the degree of transmission of BA.2.12.1 is 25 percent more than that of BA.2.
“It seems to be reproducing better and possibly getting away with some pre-existing immunity that’s a little bit better than my BA 2 mother,” said Robert F. Gary, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Gary explained that as viruses multiply, changes are made to their genetic codes. Most of the time, he said, these mutations weaken the virus, which means it’s harder for the virus to compete.
“But sometimes you’ll get one that has picked up a mutation … and that gives it some edge over the other variants,” he said. “This will outperform the rest and that’s what we see with the new variant Omicron.”
The good news is that BA.2.12.1 does not appear to cause more serious disease than BA.2, which itself causes less severe disease than the previous delta variant.
In a preprint study recently published online but not yet peer-reviewed, scientists in South Africa said that two subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, appear to be able to circumvent antibodies produced by individuals with the original omicron, which Indicates the possibility of a new wave emerging.
As of press time, there have been three cases of BA.4 in Canada, two in Ontario and one in Quebec, reported to GISAID, and one case of BA.5 in Toronto associated with international travel.
But Otto said South Africa doesn’t really have a BA.2 wave, and Canada, in the middle of a wave, could be left with more protection against BA.4 and BA.5.
“Eventually we’ll see a dip in the immunity created by the omicron infection and we’ll see something else come in, but the timing may not be right for BA.4 and BA.5,” she said.
McMaster’s Miller said many experts feel “great unease and a certain amount of fear about where the epidemic is heading” because cases are still under control.
Plus, the public didn’t really get a breather from what might seem like a long haze of infection rather than breathing space between the original, Alpha and Delta.
“The level of infection and the ability of Omicron to infect people who have already been vaccinated and transmit it plays into what we’ve seen with this kind of really extended Omicron waves that also have ripples on top of them, like the new Omicron sub variants have emerged,” he said.
Miller and his team are working on a new type of booster vaccine that can be inhaled rather than injected into the arm.
The idea of the new vaccine, which does not target the spike protein, is that it would give broader immunity to future variants, and also stop infections in their tracks before they reach the rest of the body.
A team at Yale University is also working on something similar that can be taken into the nose.
“There is no way we can keep up with the rate of viral evolution,” Miller said.
“So targeting parts of the virus that are less likely to change is going to be very important going forward.”
Mae Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for Star. Follow her on Twitter: Hahahaha
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for The Star newspaper. Follow him on Twitter: KenyonWallace or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org