New COVID variant BA.5 prompts higher infections and reinfections

A new coronavirus variant called BA.5 is fueling yet another wave of COVID infections across the globe. This week, the CDC said BA.5 is now the dominant strain in the U.S. accounting for more than 60 percent of cases. It is also the most transmissible variant to date. Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new coronavirus subvariant, BA.5, is fueling yet another wave of COVID infections across the globe.

    This week, the CDC said BA.5 is now the dominant strain in the U.S., accounting for more than 60 percent of cases.

    And, as William Brangham explains, it is the most transmissible variant to date.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, BA.5 has proven to be a very wily variant, able to, at times, slip past some of our current defenses, the protections we get from vaccines and from previous infections.

    This is driving a lot of reinfections even among people who recently had COVID. According to the CDC, almost 90 percent of the country lives in an area with high levels of transmission. On top of that, the U.S.' booster campaign is lagging. Just one in three eligible people have gotten there first, and just one in four have their second.

    So what does BA.5's dominance mean for our ongoing fight against this virus?

    For that, I am joined again by cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol. He's a professor of molecular medicine and founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

    Dr. Topol, great to see you again.

    So, BA.5 is here. Some people have been arguing, well, it doesn't seem to be that deadly and doesn't seem to be driving that many people into the hospital. Is there some comfort to be taken in that? Is that true?

  • Dr. Eric Topol, Scripps Research Translational Institute:

    It is indeed, true, William.

    The point is, we have an immunity wall from all the prior vaccinations and infections and those combinations and boosters. So it isn't having the effect that we saw with the first Omicron, BA.1.

    The problem with all the added mutations that the BA.5 has, on top of what was BA.1 and 2 and 2.12.1, it has more mutations, which basically makes it an escape artist. That is, our immune system doesn't recognize it like we did the previous versions to the virus.

    And that's why some people who have had BA.1 in January, February are getting BA.5 here in July. So, this reinfection is a very significant signature of immune escape. It's the most reinfections we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic because it's the most immune escape of any variant.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what — how should we be approaching this? I know you have been, in particular, very critical of the way the CDC has been responding to this.

    What ought we be doing that we're not doing right now?

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    There's a lot we can do, more.

    As was emphasized in the briefing yesterday by the White House team and CDC and NIH, we have to get the boosters way up from where they are. The high-risk people over age 50, only one in four in this country have had a fourth shot. And of all Americans, only one in three have had a booster at all, which is — ranks 67 in the world, William, below countries like Sri Lanka and Rwanda, Iran.

    I mean, it's really embarrassing. I mean, we were the ones that manufactured, validated these vaccines in record time, and here we are not using this as our protection.

    And that's also the issues of the CDC about our isolation periods. If anything, where they say five days and you're good to go if you don't have symptoms, if anything, with BA.5, it may well be extending. But the median infectiousness after COVID is five days, not five days isolation. That's the median.

    So, we are — to send people out after five days, the CDC is really ignoring that. Still today, the CDC counts fully vaccinated as two doses. And for a year now, we have known the importance of boosters, even back to the Delta variant. And it's never been the principal message, a lifesaving potential for people at risk, especially by the CDC.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand what we ought to think about this drug Paxlovid.

    It didn't turn out to be a preventative, but it did show promise in stopping people who were infected from getting very, very sick. But there have been a lot of subsequent complications about it and slow rollout of the use of that. What do you make of that drug?

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Well, it's certainly one of the triumphs of the pandemic, because it went from designing a new drug to having it validated with almost a 90 percent reduction of hospitalizations and deaths in less than two years.

    Usually, that takes eight — many years. And so it was very high velocity validated. Now, the problem is, what wasn't seen in the trials is being seen now is this frequent rebound, where people take it for five days. They get much better, and then, a couple of days later, it starts back up with another — all the symptoms and infectiousness.

    So the rebound problem is likely tied to the fact that the Omicron variants weren't the ones that were tested when the trials were conducted. And so we don't know right now, should we use longer, 10 days, instead of five days? So we have got to do better.

  • William Brangham:

    One last question.

    And I have traveled a fair amount around the country recently, and almost everywhere we go, despite the fact that we know that this virus is everywhere, people have moved on. Masks are increasingly uncommon. Bars and restaurants are crowded. Airplanes are crowded again.

    I mean, do you feel like the horse has sort of left the barn, and this idea that we need to — like, this idea of people taking boosters or putting their masks back on, it just feels like the country is not there.

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    You're absolutely right.

    It's sad, because we basically have capitulated to the virus. And our fatigue and our trying to will it away, it just doesn't work, because the virus continues to evolve. We have never had an ability to contain it. So it's very likely things will get worse because of our unwillingness to try to keep up our guard.

    And you either have to go aggressive, which we're not, or you surrender, which, unfortunately, largely, we are.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research, always good to see you. Thank you.

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Thank you.

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