The third Omicron wave has begun and is expected to accelerate rapidly and peak in August, a COVID modeling expert says.
“I think there was hope that we wouldn’t have another wave until after the fall, but the wave is starting now,” says Sally Otto, who advises putting on a mask again and getting booster shots.
Otto, an evolutionary biologist and mathematical modeler at the University of British Columbia, presented her data last week at the premier North American meeting of evolutionary biologists in Cleveland, Ohio.
Data from public health labs across Canada tracking Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 show they will soon outgrow the first Omicron subvariants in Canada, said Otto, who is a member of the COVID-19 modeling group in BC
“Right now we are at a reasonable low, the lowest point in 2022,” Otto said in an interview. “So we can afford to be a little more relaxed now, but not for long, because it’s rising so fast that we’re going to be at greater risk.
“You are now going to the supermarket and your risk is fairly low. You’re going to the supermarket in three weeks and there’s a good chance someone else has COVID.”
Much uncertainty remains about the severity and harmfulness of the BA.1 through BA.5 subvariants, Otto said — at a time when public health measures are at their lowest, they have lived through the pandemic, with no mask mandate, no provincial proof of vaccination requirement for public events and gatherings, and little appetite to bring them back.
“Every week in July that passes, the COVID risk doubles and that should help people get an idea of how much more likely they are to encounter COVID in their community,” Otto said.
“But the good news is it’s summer, so keep those parties out and open those windows and avoid those crowded spaces with strangers as much as people can — and wear a mask — but don’t stop living.”
Otto recommends wearing a mask in crowded indoor environments, “especially by mid-July and August, when this next wave of cases will be in full swing.”
She also encourages those who qualify to get their COVID-19 booster injections before the peak of the BA.4 and BA.5 wave and not wait for newer vaccines.
Last week, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended booster shots ahead of a fall surge for people 65 and older, long-term care residents, those with clinically immunocompromised, Indigenous people and marginalized communities.
NACI said it will make recommendations on the type of COVID-19 vaccine as evidence on suitable vaccines becomes available.
Otto said she can’t predict whether there will be a fall wave or its expected virulence.
“What I can say is that there is still huge evolutionary potential for this virus because there are so many cases worldwide and that means this virus is changing in different ways around the world,” Otto said.
“I think COVID is with us in the long run and we need to get a little bit better at reacting to it and reacting to it – when the waves go up, so do all the protections, and when the waves come down, as we are doing now, at a reasonable low… we can afford to be a little more relaxed… but not for long.”
For those who have lost track of the variants and subvariants, COVID-19 has mutated into variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron. Omicron is considered less lethal than Delta, but more transmissible. Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are similar to the original Omicron subvariant BA.2, except for some mutations.
“And those mutations make BA.4 and BA.5 even harder for our immune systems to recognize the virus,” Otto said.
Several countries, including the US, Portugal, France, Israel and Italy, have reported an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.
Canadian chief public health officer Theresa Tam released a statement Thursday saying that BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants are more transferable and better able to circumvent immunity than previous versions. A rise in cases is likely in the coming weeks, she said.
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As of June 18, there were an estimated 15,047 new weekly COVID-19 cases in Canada, comparable to November and less than 288,771 cases per week at the peak of the Omicron wave in January.
While the number of COVID-19 Omicron subvariants BA.1 and BA.2 is declining, the estimated numbers of BA.4 and BA.5 are increasing with a daily growth of 3.1 percent in British Columbia.
By comparison, in Alberta, growth is 4.9 percent, doubling every 14 days, 6.3 percent in Ontario doubling every 11 days, and 5.5 percent in Quebec, where it doubles every 12 days.
The good news is that data from the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and Canadian Blood Services indicates high levels of antibodies in all age groups, as identified through blood donations through mid-May.
The bad news is that the ability of the antibodies to neutralize the COVID virus and prevent infection is significantly compromised for subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, Otto said.
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