Doctor Issues Major New Warning to All Americans—Including the Vaccinated

New information has shed light on how the next phase of the pandemic might look.

Recent policy shifts have made it seem as though the COVID pandemic is finally shuffling away. The past few weeks alone have seen mask mandates for air travelers dropped as many cities continued to remove vaccine requirements for activities such as indoor dining. Unfortunately, however, figures are painting a somewhat different picture: The daily average for new infections is up 50 percent over the past two weeks as of May 3, according to data from The New York Times.

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Now, officials in some major cities are watching nervously as cases begin to rise once again. On May 3, New York City was elevated from the "green" low COVID transmission risk category to the medium "yellow" risk level as daily infections increased thanks to the continued spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. Such changes in the virus' trajectory could ultimately bring about the return of particular public health measures.

But on a larger scale, some experts are already warning that there's ample evidence that another wave of COVID cases may be about to spread worldwide. According to a new South African study released on April 29, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, the new BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants were found to be capable of infecting vaccinated patients who previously contracted the disease, showing a threefold decrease in neutralizing antibody production against the latest versions of the virus. Results also found that unvaccinated patients previously infected with the original Omicron variant saw an eightfold drop in neutralizing antibody production against infection from the latest viral offshoots, Bloomberg reports.

"The low absolute neutralization levels for BA.4 and BA.5, particularly in the unvaccinated group, are unlikely to protect well against symptomatic infection," the researchers concluded. "This may indicate that, based on neutralization escape, BA.4 and BA.5 have potential to result in a new infection wave."

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However, the research team was also able to draw some positive conclusions, including identifying which types of people will likely be at the lowest risk of serious illness. "If you were vaccinated and had Omicron, your protection is decent, at least against severe disease," Alex Sigal, the study's lead author and a professor at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa, told Fortune. "If anybody is protected, it should be these people."

Sigal also specified that while there will likely be a rise in case counts, he doesn't expect it to be as significant a wave as previous surges of the virus, thanks to the high number of prior infections in the global population. He also clarified that it was unlikely to be "a very severe wave in terms of disease severity" thanks to this high level of public immunity.

And while patients still reported familiar symptoms such as loss of smell and fatigue as among the most common with the latest subvariant, Sigal said more serious effects appeared to be less common. "I haven't seen early symptoms of respiratory distress, the major COVID-specific symptom that makes this disease so dangerous," he told Fortune. "It doesn't feel nice, but there's less chance of dying."

So far, data appears to support Sigal's prediction. On April 29, Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa, reported that a recent rise in hospitalizations in the country was not matched with any noticeable increase in deaths from the virus, Bloomberg reports.

Ultimately, Sigal says that while such subvariants as BA.4 and BA.5 will create problems in the future, the idea of a highly contagious or virulent new variant remains the most worrying prospect for him. "They're not so different from what was there before. They're not going to do a huge amount of damage even though they might do a lot of infection," Sigal told Fortune. "When I see something completely different, that's when it's time to really get concerned."

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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