The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The latest coronavirus variants show reassuring early signs

A masked poll worker helps Nevadans cast their votes on Election Day at a busy Centennial Center polling place in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

A few weeks ago, a new and disturbing wave of covid infections looked possible. Several worrisome new variants capable of evading immunity landed in the United States. The variants are still coming, but as their share of total infections has grown, hospitalizations remain relatively stable. This suggests the new mutated virus is not causing more serious illness — a welcome change.

Nationwide, the BA.5 variant that was prevalent in recent months has now shrunk to 29.7 percent of total infections, according to the latest model-based forecast by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In its place is a “soup” of new variants, some of which contain mutations that in laboratory experiments proved far more evasive of antibodies than earlier variants. The Food and Drug Administration warned that some new variants might not be neutralized by the monoclonal antibody Evusheld, an important therapy for the immunocompromised.

In particular, BQ.1.1 and its offshoots now amount to 44.2 percent of total infections and are growing. But as professor Eric Topol has pointed out, “worry about this highly immune evasive” variant “has not played out” with a significant wave of new cases. New York state, which is experiencing the nation’s highest level of BQ.1.1 infections, has not seen a parallel rise in hospitalizations.

This could signal the pandemic has reached the phase in which infections still spread, but do not claim such an enormous toll as did the omicron and delta waves. One reason could be that new variants have simply evolved to cause less severe illness. Another explanation is the population has finally erected an immunity wall to keep the virus at bay, the cumulative result of natural infection, vaccination and other treatments. More studies are necessary, and any tentative conclusions could be overturned if a nasty new variant appears.

Nor is it wise to let down our guard. An intense season of respiratory ailments has begun early this year with surging influenza infections and the respiratory virus RSV, leading to intense pressure on hospitals, especially pediatric facilities. This means that wearing masks is vital in public places and anywhere with poor ventilation. In the current covid lull, it is still a good idea to get boosted. The uptake of the new bivalent vaccine booster is alarmingly low: Only 10.1 percent of the eligible U.S. population, and only 26.9 percent of the vulnerable public over 65 years old. Testing is also important as a way to keep one step ahead of the virus and protect others.

The roller coaster of the pandemic has taught a simple lesson: always be ready for the unexpected. While it would be wonderful to discover the novel coronavirus is becoming less of a threat, it makes sense to stay vigilant.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).