Currently within the United States and the world, there are two new COVID-19 variants: BA.2 and XE. Both BA.2 and XE come from the previous variant, the BA.1 strain of Omicron. Both are considerably more contagious than Omicron, but neither has led to the same hospitalization and mortality rates created by Omicron. Along with this, according to the WHO, those who have already been infected with Omicron are much less likely to contract BA.2 or XE, and may even have some protection from contracting both variants as well.
Since January 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that COVID-19 infections in the United States have plummeted, but over the last month, infection rates have risen from approximately 25,000 cases per day, to around 47,000 cases per day this week, and rising daily.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Omicron variant is an amalgamation of several sublineages. For the past many months, the most common sublineages within the population have been BA.1 and BA.1.1, but over the last month there has been the emergence of another sublineage, BA.2, and currently there are more BA.2 cases worldwide than BA.1 and BA.1.1. The WHO has noted that “BA.2 differs from BA.1 in its genetic sequence, including some amino acid differences in the spike protein and other proteins.” Although this variant is causing another pandemic spike, hospitalization and death rates have been far lower than in previous peaks. Some possible factors contributing to the lower hospitalization and death rates are higher vaccination rates, as well as immunity rates. The population has developed widespread immunity to COVID-19 through vaccinations, infection, or both. According to an Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) media officer, researchers at the university call this type of immunity “super immunity.”
While BA.2 has emerged recently and is already accounting for many of the new cases, there is an even more recent variant of Omicron, the XE variant. XE may be 10% more transmissible than BA.2, according to the WHO. BA.2 remains the most common variant infecting people in the U.S, but XE has begun to rise in the UK, and scientists are predicting that it will cross the Atlantic soon. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, University of California San Francisco Infectious Disease Expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong said that XE is essentially “a child of BA.1 and BA.2 that came together and had a recombinant event. So it arose in one person, and just spread more easily.” He also noted that jurisdictions and nations are becoming less diligent about tracking variants and variant cases due partially to new at-home testing methods and the inability to track because it is no longer deemed “an emergency,” which have made accurate numbers of how many people the new variants are infecting harder to access. He also suspects the XE variant could fizzle out, such as what happened with the Deltacron variant in 2021.
Both the BA.2 and XE variants are some of the most infectious variants of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, and this could cause another problem. The more contagious a variant or virus is, the more infections there are, and there is a much higher likelihood of new variants and strains to emerge as a result.
“The high transmissibility of the new variants is still a significant concern,” wrote Marcel Curlin, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine for Infectious Diseases at OHSU, in an email. “High transmissibility means a large number of infections which means there will still be a significant number of severe cases and deaths, particularly among those of advanced age or with preexisting conditions.”
With the Omicron variant becoming more prominent throughout the world and the United States specifically, Pfizer released a new drug called Paxlovid. Paxlovid is an oral antiviral pill that was created to treat symptoms and keep high-risk individuals from being hospitalized. Currently, the drug is still only approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for Emergency Use Authorization, but soon Paxlovid may be approved for the general population in order to more easily treat COVID-19 related illness.
Along with the new drug Paxlovid, the FDA has approved a second booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be administered to people ages 12 and older. One can receive this second dose of the booster at least four months after the first dose.
Even though mask mandates have been lifted in the United States, one of the best ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and especially BA.2 and XE, is to continue wearing a mask indoors. This not only protects the individual who is wearing it, but also everyone around them. Continue to practice hygiene such as washing hands. The CDC also recommends that people continue to get vaccinated and boosted, as it has been shown to be one of the best ways to protect oneself from getting extremely sick.