A few Omicron-related news items for this week:
- The CDC added BA.2 to its variant prevalence estimates. As I mentioned in today’s National Numbers post, the CDC is now splitting out its estimates of Omicron prevalence in the U.S. into original Omicron, also called B.1.1.529 or BA.1, and BA.2—a sister strain that’s capable of spreading faster than original Omicron. BA.2 has become the dominant variant in some parts of Europe and Asia, but seems to be present in the U.S. in fairly low numbers so far: the CDC estimates it caused about 3.6% of new cases nationwide in the week ending February 5, with a 95% confidence interval of 1.8% to 6.8%. The remainder of new cases last week were caused by original Omicron.
- CDC describes its expanded genomic surveillance efforts in an MMWR study released this week. Between June 2021 and January 2022, the agency has extended its ability to monitor new variants spreading in the U.S., incorporating public repositories like GISAID into CDC data collection and developing modeling techniques that can produce more timely estimates of variant prevalence. (Remember: all variant data are weeks old, so the CDC uses modeling to predict the present.) According to the MMWR study, genomic sequencing capacity in the U.S. tripled from early 2021 to the second half of the year.
- Vaccine effectiveness from a booster shot wanes several months after vaccination. In another MMWR study released this week, the CDC reports on mRNA vaccine effectiveness after two and three doses, based on data from a hospital network including hundreds of thousands of patients in 10 states. During the U.S.’s Omicron surge, researchers found, vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 hospitalization was 91% two months after a third dose—but declined to 78% four months afterward. It’s unclear whether this declining effectiveness is a direct result of Omicron getting past the vaccine’s defenses, or whether we’d see similar declines with other variants. Also, the CDC’s findings are not stratified by age or other factors that make people more vulnerable to severe COVID-19.
- Updated monoclonal antibody treatment from Eli Lilly gets FDA authorization. During the Omicron surge, one challenge for healthcare providers has been that, out of three monoclonal antibody treatments authorized by the FDA, only one retained effectiveness against this variant. (Monoclonal antibody treatments provide a boost to the immune system for vulnerable patients.) This week, however, the FDA authorized an updated version of Eli Lilly’s treatment that does work against Omicron, including against the BA.2 lineage. The federal government has purchased 600,000 courses of this new treatment.
- More data released on South Africa’s mild Omicron wave. A new paper published in JAMA this week, from researchers at a healthcare provider in South Africa, compares COVID-19 hospitalizations during the Omicron surge to past surges. Among patients who visited the 49 hospitals in this provider’s network, about 41% of those who went to an emergency department with a positive COVID-19 test were admitted to the hospital during the Omicron surge—compared to almost 70% during South Africa’s prior surges. The paper provides additional evidence that Omicron is less likely to cause severe COVID-19 than past variants, though this likelihood is tied in part to high levels of vaccination and past infection in South Africa and other countries.
- Omicron has been identified in white-tailed deer. New York City was an early Omicron hotspot in the U.S.; and the variant has been passed onto white-tailed deer in Staten Island, according to a new preprint posted this week (and not yet peer-reviewed). Scientists have previously identified coronavirus infections in 13 states, but finding Omicron is particularly concerning for researchers. “The circulation of the virus in deer provides opportunities for it to adapt and evolve,” Vivek Kapur, a veterinary microbiologist who was involved in the Staten Island study, told the New York Times.
More variant reporting
More Omicron mutation in South Africa and the U.S.
As cases rise in the U.S. and other parts of the world, Omicron subvariants are a continued culprit. Experts are watching closely to see if further mutations of the virus may become even more contagious, or may gain the ability …
How one wastewater plant became a leading COVID-19 forecasting source
This week, I had a new story published with FiveThirtyEight and the Documenting COVID-19 project about the data and implementation challenges of wastewater surveillance. As bonus material in today’s COVID-19 Data Dispatch, I wanted to share one of the interviews …
National numbers, April 24
After weeks of me warning about it, a BA.2 surge is upon us. Nationwide, new COVID-19 cases have gone up for the third week in a row; we’ve seen a 68% increase since the last week of March.
Omicron keeps mutating as U.S. cases rise
As though it’s not already confusing enough to distinguish between Omicron BA.1 and BA.2, more sublineages have popped up in recent weeks as Omicron continues to spread and mutate. Here are two that I’m watching, though they don’t seem to …
The US still doesn’t have the data we need to make informed decisions on booster shots
Last fall, I wrote that the U.S. did not have the data we needed to make informed decisions about booster shots. Several months later, we still don’t have the data we need, as questions about a potential BA.2 wave and …
A BA.2 surge is approaching: Here’s what you should know about this variant
Europe's new surge is likely due to European leaders’ decisions to end all COVID-19 safety measures in their countries, combined with the rise of Omicron sublineage BA.2. As BA.2 prevalence increases here in the U.S.—and our leaders also end safety …