COVID numbers are still steadily falling in the U.S. following Omicron’s worrisome winter surge. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections were down by more than 16 percent in the last week, while hospitalizations had fallen by over 27 percent. But even as we enjoy some reprieve from the coronavirus, other countries around the world are once again being hit with an uptick in cases and hospitalizations thanks to a new COVID variant.
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The BA.2 subvariant—which is often referred to as the stealth Omicron variant—has been spreading around the world recently and causing numbers to climb in several European countries. According to an NBC News analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, nearly half of all European countries have experienced increases in new COVID cases this past week. Finland saw a rise of 84 percent, Switzerland had an increase of 45 percent, and U.K. cases went up by 31 percent.
But that might not even be the most concerning aspect of the new variant’s surge. Virus experts are now warning that the BA.2 variant appears to mainly be resulting in rising cases that produce symptoms. On March 18, the Zoe COVID Study App reported that the U.K. had an average of 258,155 new daily symptomatic coronavirus cases—which was 47 percent higher than the number of symptomatic infections reported the week before.
“New daily symptomatic cases have bounced back and are rising,” Zoe experts said in the report. But this could be the result of a combined problem: BA.2 cases rising while vaccines are waning in protection against COVID infection and symptomatic disease.
According to a March 13 study pre-printed on medRxiv, mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna appear to offer similar protection against both the original Omicron variant and its stealth subvariant, but their effectiveness in protecting against symptomatic COVID falls after just two months of a third dose—and that timing matches up to the rise of BA.2 cases.
“mRNA vaccines provide only moderate and short-lived protection against symptomatic Omicron infections,” the authors wrote in their study. But they added that the shots do offer “robust protection against any hospitalization and death due to Omicron infections,” especially after a booster.
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With that in mind, people in the U.S. should be preparing for a rise in symptomatic COVID cases soon, given the recent trends in Europe. As USA Today reported, we’ve seen coronavirus cases spike in Europe just a few weeks before they started rising in the U.S. at least five times in the last two years. “We’re learning a lot about the next wave that’s going to happen in the U.S.,” Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, told the news outlet. “It’s going to happen. It’s unavoidable.”
According to the CDC, the prevalence of BA.2 is slowly rising in our country, with the subvariant estimated to currently account for around 23 percent of new infections. Top White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said that the growing prevalence of BA.2 is likely to cause coronavirus cases to increase in the U.S. within the next month.
“I would expect that we might see an uptick in cases here in the United States. Over the coming weeks, it will become more dominant [than Omicron],” he told ABC-affiliate 10News in San Diego, California, on March 16, adding that the subvariant is even “more likely to transmit” than the original version of the variant.
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