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UK study: Omicron subvariant 4 times more resistant to vaccines

US doctor calls BA.5 ‘hypercontagious’ and WHO says pandemic ‘nowhere near over’ as virus continues to mutate worldwide and cause concern among experts

A syringe is prepared with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at the Keystone First Wellness Center in Chester, Pennsylvania, December 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
A syringe is prepared with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at the Keystone First Wellness Center in Chester, Pennsylvania, December 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The BA.5 Omicron subvariant of COVID is more contagious and more resistant to vaccines than previous variants, according to a UK study published two weeks ago, causing concern among virus experts.

Messenger RNA vaccines such as the Moderna and Pfizer shots are four times less effective against the BA.5 mutation than against earlier strains of Omicron, the study in the Nature scientific journal found. The subvariant is believed to have contributed to a recent wave of new infections in Israel.

Dr. Gregory Poland, head of vaccine research at the US Mayo Clinic, labeled the Omicron subvariant “hypercontagious,” and said there was “very little protection against BA.5 in terms of getting infected or having mild to moderate infection.”

“You have good protection against dying, being hospitalized, or ending up on a ventilator,” Poland said.

According to the latest Health Ministry data, 4,333 people tested positive for the virus in Israel on Saturday, with the rate of positive test results at 36.42%. There are currently 430 seriously ill patients. The virus has claimed 11,101 lives in Israel since the beginning of the pandemic.

In addition to the BA.5 subvariant, health experts are closely observing the BA.2.75 mutation, nicknamed by scientists as “Centaurus,” which has appeared in several countries.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gives a press conference on December 20, 2021, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

In the UN health agency’s weekly review of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization said there were 5.7 million new infections confirmed last week, marking a 6% increase. There were 9,800 deaths, roughly similar to the previous week’s figure.

Earlier in the week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic still qualifies as a global emergency and he was “concerned” about the recent spike.

“The virus is running freely, and countries are not effectively managing the disease burden,” he said during a Tuesday press briefing. “New waves of the virus demonstrate again that COVID-19 is nowhere near over.”

In the last two weeks, cases of COVID-19 reported to WHO surged 30%, driven largely by the hugely infectious Omicron relatives, BA.4 and BA.5.

According to WHO, the biggest increases in COVID-19 cases were seen in the Western Pacific and the Middle East, where they jumped by more than a quarter. Deaths spiked by 78% in the Middle East and by 23% in Southeast Asia while dropping elsewhere or remaining stable.

WHO said that relaxed COVID-19 surveillance and testing programs in numerous countries have complicated efforts to track the virus and catch any potentially dangerous new variants.

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