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Scientists eye omicron descendants for potential new wave

Scientists eye omicron descendants for potential new wave

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Proportion of variants in the U.S.
Proportion of variants in the U.S.

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The next big variant is anybody’s guess

At a Center for Health Journalism webinar last week, the NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci said he wouldn’t be surprised if the coming months bring a new coronavirus variant that’s capable of evading our current immune responses.

It might be an entirely new lineage worthy of its own Greek letter, London-based virologist Tom Peacock told Andrew Joseph at STAT.

Or the evolving omicron lineage could continue to cause new waves.

There are a number of omicron variants percolating around the globe, Ewan Callaway reports at Nature, but it’s difficult to say which, if any, could unseat the omicron BA.5 strain currently dominating the U.S.

BQ.1, a descendant of BA.5, is rising in some parts of Europe. Descendants of BA.2 — BA.2.75.2 and BA.2.3.20 — are simmering in Asia. (“The names are getting ridiculous,” Peacock said.)

These variants are all accumulating similar changes to the coronavirus’s spike, allowing them to evade existing immunity from previous infections and vaccines.

“I’m fairly confident that at least one of these variants or a combination of them will lead to a new infection wave,” Tom Wenseleers, an evolutionary biologist in Belgium, told Nature. Which one may not matter much, he added, because they all behave similarly.

Pandemic exacerbated domestic violence against Black women

Lockdowns, financial strain, and other pandemic factors created a “perfect storm” that disproportionately trapped Black women at home with abusers, reports Chandra Thomas Whitfield at MIT Technology Review.

“I think that the stress of the pandemic in that moment made it easier for him to hit me,” one survivor told Whitfield.

“If there was not a pandemic going on, I would have left,” said another.

Before the coronavirus hit, Black women were more likely than white women to be killed by an intimate partner. Federal data paint a fuzzy picture of domestic violence in recent years, but Whitfield points to a troubling statistic: There were 405 more murders of Black women and girls in 2020 than in 2019.

Organizations that help women say they observed a rise in need.

Because Black women were disproportionately affected by the health and financial issues during the pandemic, they were particularly vulnerable. Some were afraid to seek police assistance because of a long history of racism in law enforcement and social services agencies.

Unfortunately, some Black women report inequities even after they seek help, said Kandee Lewis, CEO of Positive Results Center, a California nonprofit that aims to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. Some Black women say they’re judged more harshly at shelters than white women.

“We will see the fallout of the hidden abuse for years to come,” Lewis predicted.

Paxlovid rebound doesn’t indicate poor immune response

Some people who take the antiviral drug Paxlovid find their COVID symptoms and positive tests return after completing the five-day treatment course. This has led to worries the drug might somehow interfere with a proper immune response or long-lasting immunity.

But now, a small study by NIH researchers indicates that rebound was actually associated with a strong immune response, report Leroy Leo and Julie Steenhuysen at Reuters.

Among the 15 patients in the study at the NIH’s Clinical Center, those who experienced COVID rebound had higher levels of antibodies and stronger T cell responses to the coronavirus than other patients.

People who rebound should still isolate, the researchers write, but they conclude that a longer course of Paxlovid is not needed for most patients. Scientists should evaluate a longer course of treatment in people who are immunocompromised, they suggest.

As seasons change, a new wave may be brewing

Coronavirus cases are up in 15 European countries. That usually means the U.S. isn’t far behind.

U.S. counts are currently declining, but that trend could reverse soon. “Some models predict it will happen as soon as this month,” writes Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder at U.S. News & World Report.

This budding wave is still being driven by the omicron BA.5 subvariant that took over this summer, notes epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina in her newsletter. That suggests that the uptick in Europe results from factors such as changing human behavior, weather, or waning of immunity.

Meanwhile, health experts are looking to Australia for indicators of the upcoming flu season — and it doesn’t look good, report Jon Lapook and Alicia Hastey at CBS News. The past Australian winter was the nation’s worst flu season in the past five years, suggesting the Northern Hemisphere could finally face a true “twindemic” if there’s a winter COVID surge as well.

Vaccines could blunt the viral threat, but only if people get them. Fewer than half of U.S. adults plan to get a flu shot this year.

As for the new, omicron-specific COVID shots, one-fifth of U.S. adults haven’t even heard of them, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. About one-third of those surveyed had already gotten the new booster or planned to do so soon.

“The winter is unlikely to be an encore of the pandemic’s worst days,” writes Katherine J. Wu at The Atlantic. “But given the policy failures and institutional dysfunctions that have accumulated over the past three years, it won’t be anything like a pre-pandemic winter, either. The more we resist that reality, the worse it will become. If we treat this winter as normal, it will be anything but.”

From the Center for Health Journalism

California Health Equity Impact Fund

Our California Impact Fund offers mentorship and support to reporters who think big and want to make a difference in their communities through investigative or explanatory reporting on promising approaches to chronic ills.

Learn more here!

From COVID to Monkeypox: A Conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci

Video from our Oct. 4 interview with Dr. Fauci is available online.

Watch here! Or read Kellie Schmitt’s summary here.

What we’re reading

  • “Wastewater monitoring is the ‘public health dream’ that helped fight COVID. But it also raises big ethical questions about privacy and consent,” by Erin Prater, Fortune Well
  • “‘Other places in the country didn’t do this’: How one California town survived COVID better than the rest,” Victoria Colliver, Politico
  • “‘We just lost two years.’ How COVID-19 disrupted the fight against HIV,” by Madeleine Carlisle, Time
  • “How the CDC’s communication failures during COVID tarnished the agency,” by Erika Edwards, NBC News
  • “The CDC scientist who couldn’t get monkeypox treatment,” by Anna Maria Barry-Jester, ProPublica

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