Healthy Body

‘I’m an Epidemiologist—Here’s What You Should Know About the Omicron BA.2 Variant’

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COVID-19 cases are rising in the US, and you might have questions about BA.2, a subvariant of Omicron that is now considered the predominant variant, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). BA.2 was identified in the US in late December, and although similar to Omicron, there are key differences to keep in mind as you navigate an era where mask mandates and vaccine requirements are coming to an end.

Below, Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, director and founding dean at the University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health, answers all your FAQs about the Omicron BA.2 variant, including how its symptoms differ from classic Omicron and how worried you should be.

What is the Omicron BA.2 variant

Viruses mutate in order to become more contagious, reproduce more quickly, and evade the immune system. So it's helpful to think of BA.2 as a sibling, but not a twin of the other Omicron variants, says Dr. Boden-Albala. However, it has a more contagious composition than Omicron's other three lineages (BA.1, BA.1.1, and BA.3. I), she explains.

"While we’re still learning more about the variant, studies have shown that it is more transmissible than other forms of COVID-19," Dr. Boden-Albala says. Because of its increased transmissibility, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that the BA.2 subvariant now accounts for over half of new COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Are the symptoms of BA.2 different from the other Omicron variants

"Symptoms are similar to those we’ve seen in other COVID infections. Fever, chills, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, headache, and body aches are among the symptoms observed in BA.2 cases," says Dr. Boden-Albala.

Even though BA.2 is more transmissible than other Omicron variants, it doesn't appear to be more severe. "[W]hen you look at the cases, they do not appear to be any more severe and they do not appear to evade immune responses either from vaccines or prior infections,"  Anthony Fauci, MD, Chief Medical Advisor to the President of United States, told ABC News.

The CDC notes that, as with all variants, the severity of your symptoms will depend on your vaccination status, your age, medical history, and any pre-existing conditions you might have.

Who is most at-risk for developing a serious case of Omicron BA.2

As with all variants, people with certain pre-existing medical conditions are more at risk for developing severe cases of Omicron BA.2, specifically folks with chronic lung diseases, cystic fibrosis, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, or HIV infections.

Those who are immunocompromised and those who are 65 and older also face more danger if they contract the BA.2 variant. In fact, folks 65 years and older who have not been vaccinated are 52 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to their vaccinated and boosted peers.

Your best course for protecting yourself against the Omicron BA.2 variant

By now you probably know the drill, but let's get back to the basics of protecting yourself from COV1D-19, shall we? "Getting vaccinated is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and others from BA.2 and other COVID-19 variants. Completing the first series of vaccines is critical, and then staying up to date with boosters while making good judgment calls about masking, social distancing, etcetera," says Dr. Boden-Albala. Remember: Getting vaccinated lowers your risk of getting and spreading the virus, and diminishes its severity if get it.

"We shouldn’t panic, but we should stay vigilant by keeping up with our vaccine schedules, testing guidelines, and by evaluating risk everywhere we go to determine when to mask up," says Dr. Boden-Albala.

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