After more than two years of living under the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve learned that the virus is very capable of taking the world by surprise. The latest curveball has been coping with the Omicron variant, which sent cases soaring to their highest levels in the U.S. when they peaked in January. Now, the BA.2 subvariant of the virus is causing cases to rise in other parts of the world as it continues to spread. But how is the latest viral offshoot different from its predecessors? Read on to see which three symptoms could mean you’ve come down with the BA.2 COVID variant.
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As spring kicks off, COVID cases are holding steady on their months-long decline in the U.S. But the change in seasons also means the return of seasonal allergies, which have made it notoriously difficult to distinguish between a COVID infection and your body’s reaction to higher pollen levels. Because of these similarities, some experts point out that feeling any of the most common BA.2 symptoms make it necessary to reach for a swab.
“The fact is you can’t tell the difference without a test. You need to take a test,” Celine Gounder, MD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told CBS News during a March 22 interview. “You could have the sniffles, you could have a cough, you could have a sore throat, it could be from COVID, it could be from the flu, it could be from seasonal allergies. So if you have those symptoms, just take a test.”
Even as doctors and scientists are still trying to map the exact differences in how newer versions of the virus can make people feel, there’s evidence pointing to the fact that you can still expect many familiar COVID warning signs. “The symptoms of the Omicron variant, which includes the BA.2 lineage, and the Delta variant, are similar,” Erica Johnson, MD, the chair of the Infectious Disease Board of the American Board of Internal Medicine and doctor of internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, tells Parade. “In general, common symptoms include fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, sore throat, and fatigue. Some people may experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some may also experience changes in taste or smell.”
Some of the most specific available data on Omicron symptoms comes from the U.K. Zoe COVID Study App, which collects reports from a large pool of participants. According to information from people who recently tested positive and are believed to have been infected with BA.2, 80 percent reported having a runny nose, followed by 65 to 70 percent of respondents reporting fatigue, sneezing, sore throat, and headache. In addition, half of the recently infected participants reported a persistent cough, while 31 percent reported running a fever and 23 percent reported a change in their ability to smell, Tim Spector, one of the project’s founders, told Newsweek.
When asked if analysts had noticed any specific difference between BA.2 and the original Omicron, Spector replied: “We are not seeing any obvious change in symptoms—just more cases!”
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The rise of BA.2 has caused concern among the medical community. The latest viral offshoot is believed to be 50 to 60 percent more transmissible than the already highly contagious Omicron, with its rapid spread making it the dominant strain globally as the cause of 86 percent of all sequenced cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And while cases continue their downward trend in the U.S. for the moment, a rising proportion of infections caused by BA.2 has some officials concerned that the spikes in other countries could soon begin domestically.
“We are seeing an uptick of coronavirus in the wastewater—so that’s your sewage water—so we know that there is increasing transmission across the country,” Gounder told CBS News. “The real question is does that translate into severe disease, hospitalization, and death. And that really depends on if people are vaccinated and boosted, if they’ve had a recent infection—so say over the holidays with Omicron, they probably have some protection from that—and if they’re elderly or immunocompromised, they certainly are at higher risk.”
Still, some officials remained cautiously optimistic that while there could be a spike in COVID infections over the coming weeks, another drastic increase was less likely. “The bottom line is we’ll likely see an uptick in cases, as we’ve seen in the European countries, particularly the U.K.,” chief White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on March 20. “Hopefully, we won’t see a surge—I don’t think we will.”
Fauci admitted that while BA.2 presents a unique set of challenges due to its transmissibility, there are signs from other countries that any upcoming surge may be different. “When you look at the cases, they do not appear to be any more severe, and they do not appear to evade immune responses either from vaccines or prior infections,” he said.
When asked whether or not it’s time to revive protective restrictions to prevent a surge, Fauci replied that they aren’t necessary. But he did advocate for other measures that officials could take to protect against the virus in the future to make sure such precautions won’t be needed again. “The easiest way to prevent [a surge] is to continue to get people vaccinated. And for those who have been vaccinated, to continue to get them boosted, so that’s really where we stand right now,” he said.
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