Omicron subtype on the rise: is there a risk of a summer wave with BA.5?

In Portugal, the number of infections is skyrocketing.

Omicron subtype on the rise: is there a risk of a summer wave with BA.5?

In Portugal, the number of infections is skyrocketing. The reason: the omicron subvariant BA.5 is spreading rapidly. It is considered more contagious than its predecessors. What does that mean for Germany?

It feels like the pandemic is over. Corona measures seem almost forgotten in everyday life for most people in Europe. There are almost no restrictions anymore. The virus is far from gone, as was recently shown in Portugal. There, the hope of a normal summer is clouded by a massive increase in the number of corona. More than 30,000 infections are currently registered every 24 hours. The main hotspot is the greater Lisbon area. Virologists speak of an "explosion of new infections" and do not rule out that there could soon be 60,000 cases a day.

The BA.5 subtype of the omicron virus variant is responsible for the severe corona outbreak in Portugal. This mutation has displaced the previously dominant subtype BA.2 in Portugal and is now responsible for 80 percent of all new infections, explains the national Ministry of Health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now added the subvariant to the list of "Variants of Concern" after it was first discovered in South Africa and then detected in several European countries, including Germany.

The proportion of BA.5 in Germany is still small. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), according to the latest available data, a sample from the week before last, it was 2.5 percent. "But that could look different in two weeks," warned modeler Kai Nagel in an interview with the editorial network Germany. "So far, everything indicates that there will be another wave of infections." And according to the expert, that could come as early as summer.

BA.5 is an omicron variant with its own origin. This means that it does not descend from BA.1, BA.2 or BA.3, but has the common omicron precursor as its origin, as virologist Christian Drosten explained on Twitter. In addition to omicron, the variant has a mutation on its so-called spike protein, which is said to increase the virulence of the variant. Virologist Christoph Steininger from Med-Uni Vienna also confirmed to the "Augsburger Allgemeine": "The new data from Portugal show that BA.4 and BA.5 must definitely have a growth advantage over BA.1 and BA.2."

According to the experts, there is no reason to panic: BA.5 surpasses its predecessors in their ability to bypass the immune response. However, the subtype should not be more dangerous than the omicron variant that is prevalent in this country. "BA.5 does not appear to cause more severe diseases than other variants," agrees Portuguese epidemiologist João Paulo Gomes. In addition, the built-up population immunity helps to reduce the risk of infections and serious illnesses.

However, due to the immune-volatile virus variant, which currently dominates with omicron, protection against infections is no longer as effective as before. In Portugal, the seven-day incidence skyrocketed to nearly 1,800 in a month. For comparison: On April 19, it was just under 325. The number of corona deaths is growing accordingly. Most recently there were 230 in one week - most of the victims are elderly people. The burden on hospitals is also increasing again in Portugal. There are almost 2,000 Covid 19 patients in the clinics. The occupancy of beds with corona patients increased by 27 percent within a week. However, the situation in the health system is not nearly as critical as it was a year ago. At that time, the intensive care units were completely overcrowded.

Rather, it is problematic that more and more employees are absent due to corona quarantine measures - which is increasingly causing difficulties for important sectors of the economy such as gastronomy, the hotel industry and the textile industry. Calls for a return to the mask requirement are therefore getting louder and louder. So far, however, Health Minister Marta Temido has ruled out the return of corona restrictions. She relies on the personal responsibility of the Portuguese. And a second booster shot for seniors.

The RKI is currently not assuming that the spread of subline BA.5 will again lead to a sharp increase in the number of cases in Germany. Virologist Martin Stürmer is also confident: Because many people in Germany have already been infected with the similar BA.2 type, they could be protected from BA.5, the expert said ntv. There could be an increase in numbers - but not a massive impairment. In Germany, the nationwide incidence is currently 201.7. The omicron variant BA.2 continues to dominate the infection process in this country. The proportion of this subtype was recently unchanged at 97.4 percent.

The Council Chairman of the World Medical Association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, was still alarmed: "The BA.5 variant of the virus will also spread to us," he told the "Rheinische Post". Many, including those who have been vaccinated, would become ill. "It's good to know that those who are vaccinated get sick much less severely. The risk of dying is 99 percent lower than for unvaccinated people," says Montgomery. He therefore called for good preparation for autumn and winter. And that means: "Vaccinate, now more than ever."

(This article was first published on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.)

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