What we know about the new wave of COVID in South Africa

New research suggests these 2 new subvariants can dodge immunity.

A man receives a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at Discovery vaccination site ...
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When Will it End?

South Africa is currently having another COVID surge; during the past week, new cases of the virus have tripled there. This current wave seems to be due to the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron, which has public health experts (and all the rest of us) worried about how these new mutations will impact the rest of the world. Here’s what we know so far about the subvariants creating the spike in South Africa.

As anxious as we are to see an end to COVID, the virus is evolving in new ways as immunity around the world increases. “What we are seeing now, or at least maybe the first signs, is not completely new variants emerging, but current variants are starting to create lineages of themselves,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, told the New York Times. In other words, the BA.4 and BA.5 that are to blame for the spike in South Africa are mutations of the Omicron mutation.

New research suggests that the problem with the BA.4 and BA.5 variants is that they appear to be able to evade immunity. So even though most of the population of South Africa has some immunity to the virus, even people who’ve had COVID before or are vaccinated are vulnerable to re-infection. Before you freak out, no one is sure whether BA.4 and BA.5 cause more severe cases or if these subvariants are going to cause surges in other parts of the world.

BA.4 and BA.5 are already in the U.S., and researchers studying the new subvariants think they do have the potential to cause a wave here, Fortune reported. But Alex Sigal, a professor at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa and co-author of the recent study on BA.4 and BA.5 also said that the fact that so many people in the U.S. have been vaccinated combined with the fact that many have already been infected with Omicron may help us avoid spikes in hospitalization and death. Sigal told Fortune that he doesn’t expect the U.S. to see “a very severe wave in terms of disease severity.” “Infections? Yes,” Sigal told Fortune. “Disease severity? Not so much.”

At this point in the COVID pandemic, it’s getting difficult to keep track of all the variants and subvariants, which strain is surging where, and when we should be concerned. The good news is here in the U.S., the new subvariants are not dominant, so we can still focus on preventing transmission, the New York Times reported. It is daunting that we can’t predict the future, but we have never been able to do that, and we already know what steps to take to reduce the risk of infection.