8 July 2022

BA.4, BA.5 are here and driving higher caseloads: here's what you need to know

| Lottie Twyford
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Empty street

The empty streets of last year’s lockdown might seem a lifetime ago, but a new COVID-19 wave is coming. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

As you’re probably aware by now, COVID-19 cases are well and truly on the way up around the country, leading health authorities to confirm a new wave of COVID-19 is either here or it’s very much on the way.

Health experts and epidemiologists agree the wave is being driven by the spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of Omicron.

But what are these variants and should we be worried?

Not exactly. Infectious diseases expert at the ANU Professor Peter Collignon isn’t overly worried … yet.

How did BA.4 and BA.5 come to be?

As you probably know by now, COVID-19 has changed and mutated repeatedly since it first emerged in Wuhan.

The major strains include Alpha, followed by Delta and then Omicron, which arrived late last year and peaked in January in Canberra.

BA.4 and BA.5 were first detected in January in South Africa, but they are now on track to become dominant around the world.

It’s understood these latest two strains have developed from Omicron.

That, says Professor Collignon, is both good and bad news.

“They are more transmissible than previous strains, like Omicron, but overall it seems to have a lower mortality rate and a serious disease rate than the Alpha strain,” he says.

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Are our current vaccines going to protect us?

To a certain extent, yes.

Professor Collignon notes the other problem when a virus mutates this much is that vaccines become less effective, particularly at protecting against mild illnesses.

He does, however, say the vaccines still give you good protection against serious illness and death.

A previous COVID-19 infection also strengthens this immunity and further reduces a person’s risk of death and serious disease.

But there’s a big caveat to put on all of this.

Yes, the strain is less deadly. Yes, people have immunity and vaccine protection.

But, if people are now catching COVID-19 in higher numbers, more people will die than in previous waves where lockdowns and other public health measures stopped such high caseloads, as you can see from the fact that 50 per cent of all of Australia’s deaths in the pandemic have happened in the first six months of this year.

Professor Collignon also explains that while the risk profile of COVID-19 and the flu are now similar, the former is hanging around for longer than a normal winter flu season.

So how many cases can we expect this winter?

Basically, Professor Collignon says it’s difficult to predict, and he’s not sure daily caseloads are as important as they used to be.

“The number to look at is hospitalisations and deaths,” he explains.

“The latter is the most important because I think that for every case we find, there are two or three we have missed.”

But, he again notes a caveat is necessary as deaths lag two to three weeks behind cases.

As for a better way to uncover COVID, Professor Collignon recommends sewage testing and actually reporting what’s found.

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Is a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine necessary?

Despite what politicians might be saying, Professor Collignon is not yet convinced this is needed right now for the general population.

Those who are immunocompromised or elderly do need a fourth shot, however.

Is getting COVID-19 worse the second time?

Actually, current evidence suggests the second time around is – in most cases at least – milder than the first.

But again, it’s important to note there isn’t much evidence yet about reinfection.

Professor Collignon says we need more data.

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Will state and territory governments need to introduce restrictions like face mask mandates?

Not according to Professor Collignon. The most recent data from the US showed there wasn’t much difference between states that introduced mandates and those that didn’t.

He puts this down to people generally not following the mandate or wearing the mask correctly.

But he does advise mask-wearing when indoors in crowded, indoor situations such as public transport.

“A different question is, should we fine everyone in that carriage who is not wearing them? In that case, probably not, as we don’t have any evidence to show it works on a population basis,” Professor Collignon explains.

But, as Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said earlier this week, as she repeated a line much loved by the Territory’s health authorities – she won’t rule anything in or out.

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The Health experts and epidemiologists seem to know marginally more than we do. All a bit of a guessing game really. I will have the 2nd booster to be on the safe side. Will this damn thing finally go away?

@Earthdog – yes, it does seem the goal posts are regularly changing, such is the nature of this unruly “beast”.

I’ve just listened to my GP (same one for over 20 years), as he knows me medically and as a professional is keeping abreast of the latest health information … his unwavering and consistent advice has been to avail myself of every COVID shot as I become eligible – 2nd booster = tick.

“Will this damn thing finally go away?” How long is that piece of string again?

It won’t go away until people want it to. Imagine if we never had the technology to sequence the virus. In 2020 there may have been more deaths sure but it would have gone and past like a bad flu season. By messing around with nature we have only made things worse and the reason for the increasingly more transmissible virus is it’s evolutionary pressure to evade an artificial vaccine.

And your view is based on your medical qualifications and extensive experience in the immunology field is it, Sam Oak?

Or is it based on your extensive reading of articles from people like UK funeral director, John O’Looney, (yes that’s really his name) who claimed coronavirus was “just a common cold” and refused to be vaccinated. While loonies (pun intended) like O’Looney, still steadfastly remain opposed to vaccines, their claim that vaccines diminish the immune system has been debunked by reputable experts people in the field – e.g. https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-coronavirus-britain-idUSL1N2SY1SP.

Oh and a footnote: Apparently O’Looney changed his mind about the seriousness of COVID 19 after he contracted it and was admitted to ICU in January this year commenting: “I was initially sceptical about COVID but I can confirm its validity and it is very nasty.”
However, O’Looney remained sceptical about vaccines, despite his stay in hospital – which may be less about his knowledge on the subject and have more to do with a vested interest in people, especially the immuno-compromised, not getting vaccinated, given his profession.

JS it’s based on logic and common sense and my experience never catching COVID. Don’t care for your fabricated stories about anti-vaxxers dying from the virus – we all know you left wing fanatics get off on that fan fiction stuff. Whilst hiding in your mum’s basement avoiding all social contact, I’m sure you can imagine me suffering in ICU too. Sorry, but it’ll never happen buddy, I’m perfectly healthly, have no comorbidities, have a healthy diet and an athlete’s body and stamina. No, I do not need a booster shot every 3 months to protect me from “severe illness, hospitalisation and death!”

Hi S. Oak. I have never had Covid-19 nor had 3-monthly boosters either. I don’t even have a basement. By your logic it follows that I am perfectly healthy with no comorbidities, a healthy diet and an athlete’s body and stamina. Is that how correlation and causation work? How’s your logic going there?

Is your favourite ever movie, “I’m All Right Jack” (but you haven’t bothered seeing it yet)?

Actually, Sam Oak, I wouldn’t wish COVID on anyone – even the likes of you.

JS wishing COVID on someone is equivalent to wishing that someone be flogged with a warm lettuce. I’m sure there are some that will end up in hospital from it but for most it would be little more than a small nuisance and more harmful to the one that bought said lettuce.

S. Oak, over 10,000 recently dead in this country, at a current rate 15x the rate of traffic deaths, would like to point out the bleedin’ obvious, if they could.

Perhaps you could explain to their families that they died from a surfeit of warm lettuce. They may view your brain similarly.

@Sam Oak

While I’m not sure if your ignorance outweighs your arrogance, I do know I’m sure that your ill-informed comments are nothing more than background static against the reality of valid information on COVID backed by scientific data. The fact that you choose to ignore the facts, says more about you than the evidence you reject.

Nevertheless, as I’ve said before and will continue to say, I will take my medical advice on COVID 19 from competent and qualified practitioners (in particular my personal GP), not FIGJAM wannabes who are experts in their own mind and nowhere else.

Capital Retro5:32 pm 11 Jul 22

Good one about “I’m All Right Jack”, phydeaux. I guess your favourite movie would be “Soylent Green”?

Nope. Never seen, no interest.

Well I’m confused somewhat.
“” Infectious diseases expert at the ANU Professor Peter Collignon isn’t overly worried …. yet”” .
yet ?

Today we are told a 2nd booster has been approved, and will shortly be available.

Am ‘tinkin I will get the 2nd booster, just to feel safe, or safer ?
The first one only cost me 20 bucks, so I guess this second one will cost the same.

@MERC600 I’ve had both my booster shots and they, like the intial COVID shots, were covered by Medicare – just made an appointment at my local pharmacy via the Dept of Health website (https://covid-vaccine.healthdirect.gov.au/booking/)

PS MERC600 … I see on the link I gave you it’s even possible to get a free shot without having Medicare coverage

Scientists have no clue anymore. They don’t know where Omicron originated let alone the original virus. The vaccines and boosters are all designed for the original strain – a now extinct virus in the wild and the current variants are as distinct as Smallpox is to Measles. There is a reason scientists are one of the lowest paid professions out there and it’s frightening how much blind faith we put into believing a man wearing a lab coat.

“Am ‘tinkin I will get the 2nd booster, just to feel safe, or safer” – good attitude, MERC600 … better than listening to the nutters

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