New omicron variant worries experts as it spreads in India, and Moderna says new booster offers better protection against BA.4 and BA.5

A new, highly infectious subvariant of omicron is raising concerns among scientists and health experts as it spreads in India and other countries, including the U.S.

Scientists say the variant — called BA.2.75 — may be able to spread rapidly and get around immunity from vaccines and previous infection, as the Associated Press reported.

It’s unclear whether it could cause more serious disease than other omicron variants, including the globally prominent BA.5.

“It’s still really early on for us to draw too many conclusions,” Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told the AP. “But it does look like, especially in India, the rates of transmission are showing kind of that exponential increase.”

Whether it will outcompete BA.5, he said, has yet to be determined.

The news comes as the U.S. seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases remains mostly steady and deaths are declining, but hospitalizations and the positivity rate for COVID tests keep on climbing to multimonth highs. The trends are worrying some experts as they come at a time when most Americans appear to have abandoned public safety measures such as face masks and social distancing.

The daily average for new cases stood at 107,533 on Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, up 5% from two weeks ago but still in the middle of a relatively narrow range that has lasted for the past couple of months.

The number of new cases reported is expected to have been reduced by the Fourth of July holiday, as lower staffing levels may have interfered with counting efforts. And many more people are now testing at home, and those data are not being collected.

Meanwhile, the daily average for hospitalizations rose to 37,472 on Sunday, up 18% in two weeks. And the positivity rate on COVID tests stands at 18%, its highest level since Feb. 1. On the bright side, the daily average for deaths has fallen 7% from two weeks ago to 322.

If you’ve had Covid before, why can you get it again? WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains what the possibility of reinfections means for the future of public-health policy and the Covid-19 pandemic. Illustration: David Fang

There was positive news from Moderna
which said a bivalent COVID-19 booster that equally protects against BA.1 and the original strain of the virus produced a better antibody response against the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants in people who were fully vaccinated and boosted than its currently authorized COVID-19 booster.

The new study tested neutralizing antibody levels one month after the second booster was administered, and the findings were consistent across age groups, the company said.

Moderna is also developing a bivalent booster that specifically targets BA.4 and BA.5 as well as the original strain of the virus, per recent guidance from the Food and Drug Administration. The company has been working on the BA.1-containing bivalent booster for several months. 

Read also: The U.S. bets billions of dollars on better COVID-19 boosters as it prepares for a spike in COVID-19 cases in the coming months

The U.S. government purchased 3.2 million doses of Novavax Inc.’s
still-investigational COVID-19 vaccine. Novavax’s recombinant protein-based vaccine uses different technology than the mRNA shots developed by Moderna Inc. and Pfizer
and BioNTech

 The vaccine still has to receive authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and the OK of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though an FDA advisory committee has already recommended authorization of the two-dose vaccine.

Coronavirus Update: MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• Beijing imposed stringent restrictions across a number of cities this weekend in an effort to tackle the emergence of the highly contagious BA.5 omicron subvariant. Macau-focused casino stocks declined after city officials announced a week-long shutdown of gaming venues and other businesses to combat a surge in COVID-19 cases in the Asian gambling hub, as Dow Jones Newswires reported.

• Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has tested positive for COVID-19 and reports experiencing very mild symptoms, his spokesman said Sunday night, the AP reported. Schumer, 71, is fully vaccinated and has received two booster shots, spokesman Justin Goodman said in a statement. The New York Democrat will follow federal health guidelines and quarantine this week while working remotely, Goodman said.

Shanghai residents took selfies outside and toasted with champagne as the city emerged from a Covid-19 lockdown that lasted more than two months. But there are economic challenges ahead as China shows no signs of easing its zero-covid strategy. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

• The European Union’s main regulators are recommending that people over the age of 60 get a second booster dose, along with other medically vulnerable people. “Countries should consider a rapid deployment of second booster doses with currently available vaccines,” said a statement from the European Medicines Agency and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. 

• Heathrow, the U.K.’s largest airport, on Monday apologized for bad service after struggling to cope with what it called 40 years of passenger growth in just four months. The airport, which is owned by Spain’s Ferrovial
said traffic through June surged 283% to 26.07 million passengers, including 6 million in June alone, as people began to reschedule travel after two years of pandemic-related cancellations. The airport operator detailed problems including long queue times, bags arriving late or not all, and delays for passengers with reduced mobility. It said it had anticipated capacity recovering this summer, and by the end of July will have as many people working in security as it had before the pandemic.

Read also: COVID patients with weak immune systems should get priority care to avoid new variants emerging, experts say

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 555.5 million on Monday, while the death toll rose above 6.35 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 88.6 million cases and 1,020,683 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 222.4 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 67% of the total population. But just 106.6 million have had a first booster, equal to 47.9% of the vaccinated population.

Just 17.7 million of the people 50 years old and over who are eligible for a second booster have had one, equal to 27.7% of those who had a first booster.

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