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BA.5, a new Omicron subvariant of the coronavirus, has become dominant, accounting for 65% of infections nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some experts have called it “the worst variant we have seen so far,” given its high transmissibility and its ability to evade immunity conferred by vaccination or prior infection. To help offer guidance on how to stay protected against BA.5, Yahoo News spoke to Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Over the last several weeks, Omicron sublineages BA.4 and BA.5 have been increasing in the United States.
MONICA GANDHI: The two problems within is that likely BA.4 and BA.5 are more transmissible. But importantly, the antibodies that you form if you got the vaccine, or even if you got a prior infection, don't work as well against BA.5. And so you can get reinfected very easily.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY: While there's no evidence available to suggest that BA.4 or BA.5 cause more severe disease, and we're still collecting data on the vaccine effectiveness against BA.4 and BA.5, we know that vaccine effectiveness against severe disease and death remains high for other Omicron sublineages, and likely also for BA.4 and BA.5.
So staying up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines provides the best protection against severe outcomes.
MONICA GANDHI: There was a recent report from the largest health care system in South Africa called the Discovery Health Care System, that showed that two doses of the vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, were 87% protective against hospitalization from BA.5. So we absolutely know that severe disease, the vaccines are still protecting us against that particular problem, which is the worst problem.
ASHISH JHA: We encourage all Americans to get vaccinated if they haven't already. Americans age five and above should get their first booster shot within-- after five months, after their initial vaccination. And for people who are 50 years of age or older, you are eligible for your first booster or second booster wherever you are in your vaccination schedule. If you've not gotten a vaccine shot this year, go get one now. It could save your life.
MONICA GANDHI: Pfizer is coming up with a BA.4, BA.5 Omicron-specific mRNA vaccine that they say will be out in October. Moderna has promised a BA.4, BA.5, but they're calling it bivalent. October is a time when we're going to get an Omicron-specific, variant-specific vaccine. So the question is, what do we do in August?
Do we wait for the Omicron-specific vaccines or do we boost now? So the way that I would think about it is if you're over 60, I would go ahead and get your fourth shot or your second booster, and then you can get an Omicron-specific one in two to three months. There has been no evidence that getting vaccines close together is harmful.
In fact, there was a nature immunology paper that showed us that every subsequent booster, or exposure, for that matter, just expands our t-cell repertoire and broadens them. It doesn't hurt us in any way. So you can get one now. If you're waiting for the Omicron-specific variant vaccine in the fall, if you are healthier and younger, it's probably prudent-- and kind of masking to keep yourself away from the reinfections. Because then you're going to get antibodies that are tailored towards the circulating sub-variant.
ASHISH JHA: We have highly effective treatments that work against BA.5, including paxlovid. This is an oral antiviral that reduces the risk of hospitalizations and death by 90%. And if you test positive in the days and weeks ahead, please consult your health care provider about your eligibility for treatment. Or please visit COVID.gov to find a test to treat location where you can get tested and treated all in one place. Treatments can save your life.
Now, vaccines and treatments will help prevent serious illness and death. We also need to make sure we reduce the spread of illness. And we have several tools that help do that.
MONICA GANDHI: That means all those preventative measures, if you want to prevent yourself from getting it, are all still in play and they all still apply. That's really good fit and filtered masks inside, ventilation if you are inside, and testing, essentially, if you are going to be around someone vulnerable, for example-- or if you've been exposed to someone.