The BA.2 variant of the coronavirus is on the rise. Often referred to as a “stealth” subvariant of the omicron strain, BA.2 has become the dominant type of COVID in some states outside Texas.
As the new variant arrives amid a paradigm shift in how the Centers for Disease Control approaches COVID, and communities loosen their protections, how concerned should Texans be?
Dr. Catherine Troisi, infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, says Texans should remain vigilant, but cites a some welcome news. Paradoxically, the fact that previous COVID waves have affected so many means that natural antibodies provide a degree of protection for many Texans, as does being fully vaccinated. But what happens once those antibodies start to wane in strength, later this year, is another story. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Have you heard this description of BA.2 as the stealth variant? Why is it called that?
Dr. Catherine Troisi: Well, originally when it was first detected, it was a little harder to distinguish from other variants. That problem has really been solved, so it’s not that we can’t detect it.
Do you have any sense of the levels of BA.2 infection in Texas at this point?
Well, overall, we’re seeing 35% of new infections are due to BA.2 – higher in some parts of the country, for example, the Northeast, lower in other parts such as Texas. But we found that with BA.1. If you remember way back two years ago, there was a lot of COVID in New York City, for example, We got it a little bit later. So we’ll see what happens.
It may also be that the reason we’re not seeing as high levels of BA.2 here in Texas is that we have a higher percent of the population who is protected. We have some who are protected by vaccination, and that’s a good thing. But because we didn’t have the strict restrictions that some other states had, more people got infected. And so they have some immunity built up.
A lot of cities and a lot of states have dropped their barriers when it comes to efforts to try to contain COVID. Was that premature and how concerned are you that we could see another spike similar to what we’ve seen at other times?
I think time will tell whether it was too early, but I am a little concerned – not necessarily about BA.2, but about other variants that may arise. And what happens in the fall and winter when people’s immunity may be wearing down. The best way to protect yourself is to get those two doses of vaccine – or one if it’s J&J – and then a booster dose. So even when mandates about masks, about social distancing, etc. have gone away, you can still choose to mask. Nobody’s stopping you.
Bottom line though. When it comes to how concerned we should be about this new variant, what do you what do you tell folks?
I don’t think we need to. First of all, everybody’s in a different position, right? If you have an underlying condition, if you are over 85, if you’re immunocompromised so you aren’t able to mount a good response. I would be concerned. If you’re if you’ve had your two doses and your booster, you’re probably pretty well protected.
The problem is that we haven’t done a great job in this country of vaccinating folks, and we’ve done even a poorer job about boostering those who are vaccinated. So it just depends on your particular situation. I don’t think we’re going to see a big surge like we did with BA.1, because so much of the country has already been infected. And that those antibodies should last for at least a while.