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July 20, 2022 7 mins

The Omicron subvariant BA.5 is proving that the pandemic is still not over.  It continues to evade immunity, even from previous omicron infections.  The good news is that death rates are down and hospitals aren’t overwhelmed like before, but the virus is spreading fast again and the small fraction of people getting seriously ill can add up.  Umair Irfan, senior reporter at Vox, joins us for how virus mutations are keeping Omicron in play.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
It's Wednesday, July. I'm Oscar Ramirez from the Daily Dive
podcast in Los Angeles, and this is reopening America. The
only Crown subvariant B A five is proving that the
pandemic is still not over. It continues to evade immunity
even from previous O. Macron infections. The good news is
that the death rates are down and hospitals aren't overwhelmed

like before. But the virus is spreading fast again, and
the small fraction of people getting seriously ill can add
up your faun. Senior reporter at Vox joins us for
how virus mutations are keeping O Macron in play. Thanks
for joining us, my pleasure, thanks for having me. What
let's talk about what's going on with COVID nineteen right
now in the latest OH Macron subvariant that's taking hold

of the country B A five. Now, obviously we're seeing
cases go up, we're seeing some hospitalizations go up. It
hasn't been panning out so far in depths, which is
really good. But still, I mean, we're getting no signs
of really things going away completely as we might have
been thought. We've kind of let our guard down at see,
like in a lot of cases. Um, as I mentioned,
we're still just seeing the subvariant take hold of the

country and it's hard to really track. You know, a
lot of people are testing at home. Now everything is
a little bit different. But still what we're seeing with
this subvariant B A five is that it just doesn't
care if you've had COVID before. I mean, it's infecting you.
It's infecting you even if you've had A macron before,
a different subvariant of O macron before. So Mare tell
us a little bit more about what we're seeing with

this one. Yeah, we're seeing, you know, a fair amount
of breakthrough infections. That is, people who are previously vaccinated
getting infected and reinfection, so people who were previously infected
getting infected again. And part of that is just a
consequence of the state of the pandemic. Basically, at this point,
we have so much of the population that's been vaccinated
and that has been exposed to the virus such that

they're making up a larger proportion of cases that we're seeing,
even though the overall rate is lower than if you
were unexposed or weren't vaccinated. But still it's a little
bit frustrating at this point. Man b A five seems
to be one of the most immune evasive variants so far,
and so it has a specific suite of mutations that
does seem to elude prior immunity from other variants. But

even with some people who have had a macron previously,
particularly in this past winter where we saw these massive
rise in cases, some folks who have been previously exposed
are also getting infected now with B A five. Yeah,
and you know it's unfortunate, right, It's just kind of
the natural evolution of what happens with viruses. You know,
they are constantly mutating so that they can keep surviving.

And the hope was always that hopefully it keeps mutating
and evolving into something less severe, something that might even
just kind of work itself out. And obviously that's what
the whole point of this conversation. It's not doing that,
We're pushing the virus to evolve even more to evade
the immunity as we've had, you know, a greater protection
because of viruses and that natural immunity from natural infection. Yeah,

you know, because part of that is because we don't
really have complete protection across the population, because we still
have a large percentage of population that's not been vaccinated
at all. In the US, we have about of people
that have had not had vaccines, and we're seeing declining
vaccine uptake with younger and younger people. So like kids
between five to twelve have the lowest vaccine uptake rates

around thirty and we're expecting that for the kids under
five to be even lower. So what that means is
we're going to have this mix of people that are
both very highly immunized and highly protected, but also people
that are very naive or not very well protected who
are unvaccinated, and that makes of different levels of immunity
across the whole population. Is actually kind of the ideal
breeding ground for creating variants that can escape immunity because

it has all these different you know, scheme is to
sort of like hone itself and to improve and optimized.
Whereas if we had a more comprehensive vaccination campaign across
the population, it would do a little bit better job
at keeping these variants in check. And so it also
shows sort of some of the limitations that we have
with vaccines themselves. You know, we've known for a long
time that you know, the vaccines they do protect against

hospitalization and death, and they still do that against b
A five, but they're less and less potent against preventing
infections in the first place, which is why we still
need other public health measures to be part of the strategy,
things like you know, wearing masks and social distancing. But
at this airpoint in the pandemic, we're letting up on
those as well, which is part of why we're also
seeing another spike now. Yeah, and what we're looking for is,

hopefully in the fall, some booster shots that are tailored
specifically to the O macron ferry. And and they think
that some early numbers, it thinks that they think that
it does well against these subparances as well. Tell me
a little bit about the way these subparance the O
macron submariants have evolved, because they're a little different from
some of the very earlier versions of COVID nineteen. Yeah,

you know, this is actually pretty different, almost drastically different
from alpha, from delta, from beta, the other variants that
we heard about in much of one. This kind of
came out of left field. If you look at the
genome sequence of a macron, it doesn't look like any
of the other main variants that were in circulation, and
so scientists were really puzzled by where this came from
because it didn't have a direct ancestor, and its closest

ancestor dates back to being some of the earliest days
in the pandemic back in which is by viral evolution standards,
ages and ages ago. So the question then is like,
where did such a drastically different mutant come from? And
there are a few theories there's no confirmed answer, but
you know, one is that it might have been circulating
in some population undetected and evolving in in a way
that we hadn't seen until it suddenly broke through. Another

is that it may have been developed in a person
that was immuno compromised. So if somebody has a weakened
immune system, the virus can replicate in mute for a
very long time before the immune system can actually fight
off the infection completely, and that leads to multiple opportunities
for that virus to mutate a lot more in an
individual host before it spreads to somebody else. And then
another potential theories that this may have come from an

animal that got infected by humans and then went back
and infected humans again, and so it shows that there
are you know, multiple roots for these other variants to
continue emerging. But what we've seen since Omicron has cropped
up is that it's gone undergone much more subtle changes.
And so we're seeing rather than these big drastic changes,
were seeing these very small variations on a theme, which

seems to show that this formula does work for the
virus that has the right combination of traits that allowed
to spread readily between people, to invade the immune system,
and to just replicate very rapidly. And so it seems
like this is the ideal formula, but that doesn't mean
that another drastic change couldn't occur in the future. Well,
we'll see where all this takes us. I mean, it
really just shows us that the pandemic is not completely

over In places like l A County. The community level,
the spread of this has been moved into the high
category in mid July. There could be mask indoor masking
requirements coming back. Public policy isn't keeping up quite as
quickly this time around. We'll see how everybody reacts to it.
But just so you know, be a five still really
good at evading prior immunity. There. Irfaun, senior reporter at Vox,

thank you very much for joining us, my pleasure. Thank
you for having me. I'm Oscar Ramires and this has
been reopening America. Don't forget effort today's big news stories.
You can check me out in the Day We Dive
podcast every Monday through Friday, So follow us and I
Heart Radio or wherever you get your podcasts. Yeah.
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