You May Already Be Protected From the New COVID Variant—Here's Why

Experts say there could be reason to believe the latest viral offshoot will miss some people.

After two years of life under the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus finally appears to be receding, at least for the moment. Newly reported daily cases have declined for eight straight weeks, with the national average showing a nearly 96 percent decrease since the Omicron surge peaked on Jan. 14, according to data from The Washington Post. But as infections continue their downward trajectory in the U.S., other countries are beginning to report surges brought on by the BA.2 subvariant. Now, some experts are warning that the virus could be about to come bounding back with yet another spike—but some of us may be able to avoid infection. Read on to see who may already be protected from the new COVID variant.

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Some people recently infected with Omicron may be protected from the new variant.

A young man getting a nasal swab from a healthcare worker as part of a COVID-19 test
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COVID-19 took the world by surprise with the BA.2 subvariant, just as the virus has done in the past. An analysis by the U.K. Health Security Agency found that the latest offshoot of the already highly transmissible Omicron variant is 80 percent more contagious than its predecessor, driving cases up in countries like Germany and the U.K. Since the beginning of the pandemic, surges in Europe have been a reliable warning sign that cases would begin to rise stateside within two to four weeks. However, experts say that due to the high rate of recent Omicron infections across the American population, previously infected people who are also vaccinated may already be protected from the latest COVID variant.

"The speculation I've seen is that it may extend the curve going down, case rates from Omicron, but is unlikely to cause another surge that we saw initially with Omicron," Debbie Dowell, chief medical officer for the CDC's COVID-19 response, said in a briefing for clinicians sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America on March 12.

A study found vaccinated people who had breakthrough Omicron infections may have strong immunity.

people in the city wearing face mask and walking on the pavement commuting to work - Lifestyle and health issues concepts
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While it's hard to estimate precisely how strongly BA.2 will surge in the U.S., some recent research gives a decent idea of why the virus may not come roaring back. In a letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine on March 16, scientists reported that an evaluation of antibodies in 32 people found that certain people who had already been infected during the Omicron wave could still see a high level of immunity from the latest viral offshoot.

"In vaccinated persons who had presumably been infected with BA.1, robust neutralizing antibody titers against BA.2 developed, which suggests a substantial degree of cross-reactive natural immunity," the researchers wrote. "These findings have important public health implications and suggest that the increasing frequency of BA.2 in the context of the BA.1 surge is probably related to increased transmissibility rather than to enhanced immunologic escape."

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Fading immunity from vaccines and prior infections means a U.S. surge could still be significant.

Medical staff work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 multiple patients inside a special hospital in Bergamo, on November 11, 2020.
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However, experts say infection rates reported in other countries could be a bad sign for things to come in the U.S.—specifically among vulnerable seniors, due to how much time has passed since many received their last shots. In research conducted by the U.K.'s Health Security Agency, results found that the vaccine's effectiveness dropped to 10 percent against infection, 35 percent against hospitalization, and 70 percent against death from the virus six months after the second dose, CNN reports.

The research also found that a third booster shot brought the vaccine's effectiveness back to 40 to 50 percent against infections and 75 to 85 percent against hospitalizations four to six months later. Unfortunately, data from the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) shows that only half of seniors in the U.S. are within five months of the essential third shot. And comparatively, adults in the U.K. have seen far more exposure to the virus to shore up their natural immunity: Ninety-eight percent of adults there have tested positive for antibodies for the virus versus just 43 percent of Americans, and only 23 percent of adults over 65.

"What we see happening in the U.K. is going to be perhaps a better story than we should be expecting here," Keri Althoff, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN.

Experts warn that mask and vaccine mandates are ending too soon.

A business owner putting up a sign requiring proof of vaccination.
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Even as the potential for another surge in cases looms large on the horizon, mask requirements and vaccine mandates have been lifted across the country over the last few weeks. But despite the strong desire to go back to normal as COVID cases are falling, experts stress it's a delicate balance. "Without a doubt, opening up society and having people mingle indoors is clearly something that is a contributor [to cases rising in Europe], as well as overall waning immunity, which means we've really got to stay heads-up and keep our eye on the pattern here," Anthony Fauci, MD, chief COVID adviser to the White House, told CNN on March 15. "So that's the reason why we're watching this very carefully."

The spikes in cases abroad have also renewed calls from experts to maintain a focus on getting more of the population vaccinated and boosted against the virus. Overall, about 35 percent of the eligible population have still not been fully vaccinated, and 24 percent haven't received their first dose, according to data from the CDC.

Unfortunately, another surge could mean that certain safety precautions will have to be revived—especially if hospitals become overwhelmed again. "The important thing in this massive experiment where we're dropping all masking and restrictions is we have to stay diligent in terms of monitoring of it and testing and be prepared to possibly reverse a lot of the relaxing of these restrictions," Deborah Fuller, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Washington, told CNN. "We can't let our guard down because the message that people get when they say 'we're lifting restrictions' is the pandemic is over. And it's not."

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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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