The Omicron wave comes with a flavor of ‘Here we go again’

Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, said this week that recent COVID data out of South Africa is “alarming,” as the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 appear to be causing an exponential rise in positivity rates — the percentage of all tests that are positive — and already make up more than 50 percent of cases.

“You start to see a rise that is reminiscent, in its numbers, its timing, and its test positivity rate, of the Omicron wave, possibly even taking off faster,” Lemieux said during a media briefing Tuesday by the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness. “It really is alarming and suggests that we probably will see a fifth wave in South Africa. The extent of this wave is not yet clear.”

Lemieux, who is the co-lead of MassCPR’s viral variants program, said it’s too early to tell whether the subvariants will cause a rise in hospitalizations and deaths, or, like the BA.2 subvariant that eclipsed the original Omicron in South Africa and the U.S., simply replace prior versions of the virus without causing a rise in serious illness.

“There’s a lot more population-level immunity, so perhaps it may just be a wave in numbers, not morbidity and mortality,” he said. “But it does have a flavor of ‘Here we go again.’”

Lemieux’s comments came amid generally positive news on the virus in the U.S. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical advisor, on Tuesday told media outlets that the nation has escaped COVID’s pandemic phase and appears to be decelerating toward endemic disease, where cases occur but hospitalizations and mortality remain relatively low. (Fauci clarified his remarks the next day, saying that he meant the “acute component of the pandemic.”)

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