The BA.2 subvariant of COVID-19, which has caused surging cases in Europe and parts of Asia in recent weeks, has been detected in El Paso, health officials said.
BA.2 made up a third of new cases in the United States as of Tuesday, and will soon overtake the original omicron subvariant as the dominant variant in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden.
The omicron subvariant known as BA.1 swept through the Borderland in early 2022, causing a spike in local cases, staffing shortages and disruptions to daily life. BA.2 is another subvariant of omicron, differing in its genetic sequence from BA.1, and is considered a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.
It’s not the time to declare victory against COVID-19, Fauci said during an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” while discussing the BA.2 subvariant.
“This virus has fooled us before, and we really must be prepared for the possibility that we might get another variant and we don’t want to be caught flatfooted on that,” he said.
El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza confirmed that the BA.2 subvariant has already been detected in El Paso, but the extent to which it will affect the region or cause a new surge in cases is uncertain. El Paso has seen a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and is currently at the lowest rating for the COVID-19 community scorecard with less than 15 cases per 100,000 people per day.
El Paso Matters spoke with Ocaranza and local infectious disease expert Wendy Walker to find out what we know and can expect of the latest strain of coronavirus.
What we know about BA.2
Although much is still unknown about the BA.2 subvariant, experts say that it is approximately 50% more transmissible than the BA.1 version of omicron that caused spiking case numbers in recent months.
Walker, an infectious disease researcher and assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, said although the BA.2 subvariant is more transmissible, evidence doesn’t suggest that it’s more virulent.
“The good thing is that the preliminary evidence for both (BA.1 and BA.2) indicates that they don’t cause more severe disease in a person who is infected,” she said. “Though the viruses have become able to evade the antibodies induced by the vaccine, the vaccine is still very effective at preventing severe infection.”
Ocaranza explained that, by and large, BA.2 bears many similarities to the original omicron.
“The omicron variant has about 30 mutations, particularly in the spike protein, and the BA.2 has some other mutations,” he said. “But (BA.2) shares a lot of the genetic similarities of the omicron, and that’s why they call it a subvariant.”
He said the largest source of concern with BA.2 is its ability to infect large numbers of people.
It’s unlikely to be reinfected with the BA.2 subvariant shortly after having been infected with the BA.1 subvariant of omicron, according to a February preprint research study. That means those who got omicron in recent months may have some added protection against the new subvariant.
Walker said that while preprint studies can be useful for understanding emerging dynamics, they should be taken “with a grain of salt” because they are not peer reviewed.
“Normally (information) doesn’t go from scientists to the public until it’s been peer-reviewed and other scientists have looked at it … and we can be very confident then in those findings,” she said. “But of course, nowadays with COVID, we need the information sooner, so people look at the preprint studies.”
What’s in store for El Paso
Ocaranza expressed optimism for El Paso’s outlook given high local vaccination rates and a protective effect caused by the large number of people recently infected with the original omicron subvariant.
He said he does not anticipate a massive surge in cases caused by BA.2 in El Paso, “hopefully, let me knock on the wood here.”
“We’re still gonna see some, but it’s not gonna be a very sharp, large surge of cases,” Ocaranza said.
Walker agreed with Ocaranza and anticipated that a potential BA.2 surge will be tempered by the low likelihood of reinfection within a short period of time from having been infected with the original omicron.
“Of course, nobody can predict the future, but it might be that the surge is not as bad because we did have so many people infected by BA.1 omicron, the original omicron,” she said.
But in the longer term, she said El Pasoans should be prepared for new variants and more surges in COVID-19 cases, where reinfection is possible.
“I think that we can continue to anticipate additional surges of COVID, both nationwide, and in our area — this virus doesn’t seem to be going away,” she said.
Ocaranza cautioned against using the term “herd immunity,” given the tendency of COVID-19 to mutate and change, and the potential for reinfection among those who have already tested positive in the past.
“Initially we needed to have a goal set, and the virus had not mutated, had not changed,” he said. “So as the virus continues to change and mutate we cannot achieve herd immunity. And that’s why we don’t use that term anymore.”
He and Walker both encouraged El Pasoans to expect that COVID-19 will not completely go away. Walker compared it to the flu, for which Americans receive annual vaccines, and said the hope is that COVID-19 will become more mild as it mutates.
“There’s always gonna be the risk, the risk is not gonna be completely zero,” Ocaranza said. He encouraged vaccines as the best tool for combating serious illness from COVID-19.
The future of vaccines
With the newly dominant subvariant, vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech have sought emergency authorization for a second booster dose for adults who are 65 and older. Moderna has asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize a second booster shot to all adults. But with stalled coronavirus relief funding in Congress, the future of additional vaccine supplies in the U.S. are in question.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said that consistent testing and vaccinations are among the best tools for protection against COVID-19.
“I remain committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to invest as quickly as possible in providing more funding for the testing that keeps us safe and make sure we have sufficient funds to bring the pandemic to a close,” she wrote in an email to El Paso Matters.
Ocaranza declined to comment on how stalled congressional funding for coronavirus may impact the availability of testing and vaccines in El Paso, but he encouraged El Pasoans to get vaccinated now if they haven’t yet, and to use the city’s free testing sites.
“Take advantage of the testing, take advantage of the vaccination while it’s widely available,” he said. “If they see that they don’t have the demand for all that then it’s gonna go away. Why would you have it available if people don’t come?”
Walker said she would not be surprised if a fourth dose of the vaccine is recommended in the future, and also expects that a booster will become recommended for children ages five and up.
“Viruses do evolve, that’s the normal state of things,” she said.
“I think we will continue to see the evolution of this virus, new variants evolving and additional surges. The best thing people can do is get vaccinated, even though they’re not as effective at preventing transmission of BA.2 as they were with the original coronavirus strain, they’re still extremely effective at preventing severe disease or hospitalization.”
Feature photo: A computer generated representation of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) under an electron microscope. (Felipe Esquivel Reed/ Creative Commons)