What We Know About the New BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron Sub-Variants That Have Reached Australia

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Two COVID subvariants called BA.4 and BA.5 are making waves across Australia and with good reason. According to NSW Health, on June 16, “The BA.4 and BA.5 sub-lineages have a growth advantage over the BA.2 sub-lineage… It is expected that BA.4 and BA.5 will become the dominant strain and will likely be associated with an increase in infections in the coming weeks.”

These variants have also been detected a notable number of times in Melbournes and regional Victoria’s wastewater catchments. As per Victoria’s Department of Health, “The increase in BA.4/BA.5 wastewater detections indicates a higher prevalence of these strains in the community.” However, this place then noted, “The Omicron BA.2 strain remains the dominant variant in Victoria.”

Plus, to top it all off, InDaily has reported that BA.5 is now in South Australia. The chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier told reporters, “It’s going to put some pressure on our hospital system but I don’t think it’s going to be catastrophic.”

So, considering the fact that these strains might become the new black, why are they becoming prevalent? What are their symptoms? And how worried should we all be? Well, don’t panic my hypothetical question spouter, let’s answer these queries right now.

What Are BA.4 and BA.5?

Both BA.4 and BA.5 are subvariants of the Omicron mutation of COVID-19, meaning that they share most of their genetic code with the original Omicron strain while having some unique mutations of their own that make them behave differently.

While Omicron emerged in November of last year, evolutions of that strain of COVID continue to pop up.

We’ve already seen BA.2, which was behind the recent wave of cases that Australia is just coming off the back of, and BA.4 and BA.5 are further evolutions of Omicron.

BA.4 was first sequenced on January 10 of this year in Hong Kong while BA.5 was first sequenced in South Africa on January 6.

Omicron itself has 39 mutations in its genetic code from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, while Delta had just 10. According to UK Government monitoring reports, BA.4 has the same genetic sequence as BA.2, with an additional 8 mutations. BA.5 has 11 mutations. In that sense, they are still the same disease, however with a few minor tweaks, the full extent of the impact of which we aren’t 100% sure about just yet.

While the WHO has issued warnings about the new variants, they are still referring to these two as Omicron, along with the other BA sub-varients.

What Are the Symptoms of BA.4 and BA.5?

It’s likely too early to tell if the new variants have significantly different symptoms to other forms of COVID. All the classic COVID symptoms, like fatigue, a dry cough, a loss of smell or taste, as well as general feelings of being unwell should all be treated with suspicion and testing should be a top priority.

As far as we know, the new variants are still identifiable based on current testing regimes employed in Australia, so getting a COVID test is still going to be your best option of finding out whether you have COVID, whatever variant it may be.

One of the bigger concerns with these new variants is what scientists call ‘immune escape’. As with other variants, the newer ones with more mutations, appear to be better at evading our immune systems.

This means that although you may have already caught COVID, the chances of being re-infected with a new strain are still high. The differences in the genetic code make the new variants harder for our bodies to identify, and therefore fight off, suggesting that allowing the virus to circulate to build natural immunity in the community may not be an effective strategy when it comes to these new mutations.

How Worried Should We Be?

While these subvariants are spreading in our communities, the professionals believe that they’re no more deadly than any other version of this virus. Both NSW Health and the Victoria’s Department of Health have stated that neither BA.4 or BA.5 make for a more severe disease. So at least the situation has that going for it.

But unfortunately, it’s not all good news. According to the medical journal The Lancet, BA.4 or BA.5 can “escape antibodies elicited by vaccination.” This means you may not be as protected from infection by vaccination. So, keep wearing your mask on public transport, keep washing your hands, and keep hoping that scientists are able to create some even more effective vaxs.

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