New COVID variant brings uncertainty

Maya Shimizu Harris with the Casper Star-Tribune, from the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — The omicron subvariant BA.2 brings a new iteration of uncertainty as the pandemic enters its third year.

“It’s hard to know what we can expect from BA.2,” Wyoming State Epidemiologist Dr. Alexia Harrist said.

BA.2 is one of the most common sublineages of the omicron variant, which remains the dominant variant around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Current data suggest that BA.2 is more transmissible than BA.1, another common omicron sublineage. Reported BA.2 sequences are rising compared to BA.1.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the subvariant has caused about 35% of new COVID cases across the nation as of Monday.

Fortunately, Harrist said that current vaccines, particularly the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, are still effective against omicron BA.2 in preventing severe illness and death, particularly for those who have been boosted.

“At all times the best thing to do is to be vaccinated and boosted,” Harrist said.

COVID pills are also effective against the subvariant, although the COVID pill Paxlovid works better than the other available pill, molnupiravir. Both are available in Wyoming at limited locations, primarily at hospitals. Harrist said the health department is working to expand the availability of these treatments to clinics and pharmacies.

Monoclonal antibody COVID treatments are not as effective against the new subvariant.

These treatments don’t work well against omicron in general. In January, the Food and Drug Administration limited the use of monoclonal antibody treatments in areas where omicron was the dominant variant.

The monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab seems particularly ineffective against the BA.2 subvariant. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response paused the distribution of sotrovimab starting on Friday to areas where the BA.2 subvariant is dominant, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. The FDA still authorizes the distribution of Bebtelovimab, an alternative monoclonal antibody therapy.

Sotrovimab is still available in Wyoming because BA.2 isn’t the dominant COVID variant in the state.

The variant only makes up about 21% of cases in the region that includes Wyoming and surrounding states, according to the CDC.

The health department has identified through sequencing 13 instances of the BA.2 subvariant in Wyoming. Other labs around the state have also identified four cases of the subvariant.

COVID test results are sequenced after a person tests positive, according to health department spokesperson Kim Deti. Wyoming sequences higher percentages of positive results compared to most other states, but not every result is sequenced. There could be more instances of the subvariant than those that the health department and other labs sequence.

Like COVID pills, the availability of monoclonal antibody treatments is mostly limited to hospitals. The health department is also looking to expand the availability of these treatments, although that process will be more complicated because it’s an intravenous treatment.

Harrist said she encourages people to seek out these treatments if they are at higher risk for severe illness or death from COVID.

Despite the new subvariant, the pandemic situation still seems to be improving overall.

“We’re seeing an increase in the proportion of BA.2 cases, but cases overall are declining,” Harrist said.

There are 100 confirmed active cases in Wyoming on Monday, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. That’s down by 76% from about a month ago. COVID hospitalizations are also down to 12 patients as of Friday, about an 81% decrease from a month before.

“Obviously we are watching this very closely,” Harrist said. “If we do start to see changes in levels of transmission, then we might have to bring some precautions back, we have to be ready to respond.”


This story was published on March 29.

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