The White House said on Tuesday it will ensure Americans continue to have easy access to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and testing to contain the fast-spreading Omicron BA.5 subvariant that now makes up a majority of U.S. cases.
Health officials say there are indications the subvariant might be better at escaping immunity, including from prior infections.
BA.5 is estimated to account for 65% of the coronavirus variants circulating in the United States as of last week, said Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The BA.5 and BA.4 subvariants together accounted for more than 80% of circulating variants last week, with BA.4 making up 16%, Walensky told reporters at a White House briefing.
The seven-day average of daily COVID-19 hospital admissions has doubled in the United States since early May, she said.
BA.5 does not appear to be associated with greater disease severity or hospitalizations compared to the most recent subvariants, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert who is the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.
“Variants will continue to emerge. The virus circulates globally and in this country. We should not let it disrupt our lives, but we cannot deny that it is a reality that we need to deal with,” Fauci said at the same briefing.
Officials said they are prioritizing booster shots, making at-home testing and high-quality masks widely available, and supporting people who are immunocompromized.
“We can prevent serious illness, we can keep people out of the hospital and especially out of the ICU, We can save lives, and we can minimize the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Even in the face of BA.5, the tools we have continue to work,” said Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator.
“We are at a point in the pandemic where most COVID-19 deaths are preventable,” he said.
The White House said BA.5’s wide circulation means new cases would likely rise in the coming weeks.
“Immunity wanes, whether that’s immunity following infection or immunity following vaccine, even though the immediate protection following infection or vaccine is generally good protection,” Fauci said. “If you were infected with BA.1, you really don’t have a lot of good protections against BA.4/5.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers change the design of their booster shots from the fall to better combat the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. Getting a second booster shot now would not lead a person to become ineligible for a variant-specific vaccine, Jha said.