The New COVID-19 Variant, BA.2—Get 9 Facts Straight From Medical Specialists

BA.2, the new Covid-19 variant, is spreading in the U.S. with the highest contagion rate yet. Help yourself stay ahead with wisdom from top medical experts.

The Omicron Covid-19 variant that emerged in recent months has been considered the most contagious strain of Covid-19 virus to date. Now, just as mask mandates are being lifted and in the wake of Omicron’s most severe surge, comes a new Covid-19 variant—known as BA.2—that medical experts suggest may be even more transmissible than Omicron.

Also referred to by nicknames such as “Omicron’s cousin,” “son of Omicron,” or “stealth Omicron,” BA.2 is now spreading in the U.S. with virulence patterns that seem to mimic its recent spike in Europe. As science continues to gather intel on BA.2, we spoke with medical experts who shared some of their knowledge as it evolves in real-time.

If you’re wondering: Is it possible I’ve been infected with Covid but didn’t know it? Here are the signs you may have already had Covid-19.

Experts say BA.2 will soon be the dominant Covid-19 variant in the U.S.

This insight is straight from White House chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci. At press time in late March 2022, BA.2 made up about 30-plus percent of all Covid-19 cases in the U.S., and this number was quickly rising.

Despite these statistics, Fauci has stated that he does not anticipate a surge like we saw this winter with Omicron.

It’s more contagious than Omicron

Yes, BA.2 is more contagious than Omicron (which is now being referred to as BA.1) due to its “transmission advantage,” explains Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “BA.2 is thought to be about 30 percent more transmissible than BA.1 [Omnicron], which itself was more transmissible than the Delta variant,” he says.

BA.2 likely won’t cause severe disease if you are fully vaccinated

“Likely” is the operative word here, as researchers are still analyzing data on BA.2 in real-time. For now, says Jasmine Plummer, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai, “BA.2 is very similar to Omicron (BA.1), and we have a lot of data now to support that Omicron does not link to severe disease in those that are vaccinated.”

Dr. Horovitz agrees: “It’s a mild disease and mostly causes upper respiratory symptoms and sore throats for people who are fully vaccinated and boosted.” So far, BA.2 doesn’t seem to invade the lungs the way that previous Covid-19 variants did, which he suggests may be encouraging. “The overarching hope is that this virus is evolving in a way that it is becoming milder and milder and may join the pantheon of common colds and other Coronaviruses … for the vaccinated.”

This is why you should care about BA.2, says infectious disease doctor

Yes, we all want to return to our maskless and test-free “normal,” but it’s important to keep a heads-up to the BA.2 Covid variant, says Sabrina A. Assoumou, MD MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and an attending physician in infectious diseases at Boston Medical Center. “BA.2 is a subvariant of Omicron, and we know it is more transmissible than Omicron (BA.1), which was actually one of the most contagious variants we have seen. This is why you should care,” she says.

And, a reminder: Getting your Covid-19 booster if you’re eligible can help lessen your chances of getting seriously sick from a BA.2 Covid-19 infection.

You can get BA.2 if you had Omicron

Yes, you could get reinfected with BA.2 even if you already had Omicron. The good news? It appears unlikely. “From an overall population level, it is unlikely because of the time course of having Omicron and residual protection from your last infection,” says Plummer.

There probably won’t be a large percentage of the population infected with BA.2—but of course, the one thing we know for sure about Covid-19 is that trying to predict its path can be a fool’s errand.

BA.2 may follow the same pattern seen in Europe right now

Parts of Europe are now experiencing high numbers of cases: That’s the bad news. “Cases are going up in Europe, and that tends to foreshadow what we see here a couple of weeks later,” says Dr. Assoumou.

The glass-half-full news is that death rates from Covid-19 are declining significantly. “The pandemic is not over,” Dr. Assoumou says, “but we are in a better place than we were in 2020.”

Unvaccinated people are at highest risk for severe BA.2 infection

Those at greatest risk for severe BA.2 are unvaccinated individuals and populations. “The Covid-19 vaccine protects against severe disease but not breakthrough infections, similar to what was seen with Omicron,” Horovitz says.

Covid-19 boosters may offer an added layer of protection. Further, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel will meet on April 6, 2022, to discuss a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose. Currently, people in the U.S. with moderately or severely weakened immune systems are eligible for a fourth dose.

Other prevention measures can help protect you from BA.2

Horovitz says masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing with soap and water (or hand sanitizer when those aren’t available), and staying home when you don’t feel well all remain important, common-sense prevention strategies. By the way, these are the places you’re most likely to catch coronavirus.

Variants spread because of low vaccination rates

If you’re vaccinated, you may transmit the virus, but you are much less likely to spread it than unvaccinated people. If you become infected, it’s very likely your symptoms will be milder, and therefore there will be fewer days for you to “shed” (spread) the virus around, Assoumou says.

And, she explains, “Every option that we give the virus to spread and replicate, gives it more opportunity to change and become a different version of its ancestral strain.”

Sources:

  • Len Horovitz, MD, pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
  • Jasmine Plummer, Ph.D., assistant professor, biomedical sciences, Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles
  • Sabrina A. Assoumou, MD MPH, assistant professor of medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, attending physician in infectious diseases at Boston Medical Center

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Originally Published on The Healthy

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in Reader’s Digest. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors; and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu, and rescue chihuahua-pitbull, Thomas.