Omicron's BA.5 subvariant is now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States
By Jacqueline Howard, CNN Updated 5:20 AM ET, Thu June 23, 2022
Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 appear to escape antibody responses among both people who had previous Covid-19 infection and those who have been fully vaccinated and boosted, according to new data from researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, of Harvard Medical School.
However, Covid-19 vaccination is still expected to provide substantial protection against severe disease, and vaccine makers are working on updated shots that might elicit a stronger immune response against the variants.
The levels of neutralizing antibodies that a previous infection or vaccinations elicit are several times lower against the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants compared with the original coronavirus, according to the new research published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.
"We observed 3-fold reductions of neutralizing antibody titers induced by vaccination and infection against BA4 and BA5 compared with BA1 and BA2, which are already substantially lower than the original COVID-19 variants," Dr. Dan Barouch, an author of the paper and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, wrote in an email to CNN.
"Our data suggest that these new Omicron subvariants will likely be able to lead to surges of infections in populations with high levels of vaccine immunity as well as natural BA1 and BA2 immunity," Barouch wrote. "However, it is likely that vaccine immunity will still provide substantial protection against severe disease with BA4 and BA5."
The newly published findings echo separate research by scientists at Columbia University. They recently found that the BA.4 and BA.5 viruses were more likely to escape antibodies from the blood of fully vaccinated and boosted adults compared with other Omicron subvariants, raising the risk of vaccine-breakthrough Covid-19 infections. The authors of that separate study say their results point to a higher risk for reinfection, even in people who have some prior immunity against the virus. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 94.7% of the US population ages 16 and older have antibodies against the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 through vaccination, infection, or both.
BA.4 and BA.5 caused an estimated 35% of new Covid-19 infections in the United States last week, up from 29% the week before, according to data shared by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.
BA.4 and BA.5 are the fastest spreading variants reported to date, and they are expected to dominate Covid-19 transmission in the United States, United Kingdom and the rest of Europe within the next few weeks, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.