Michael Osterholm, who has become a household epidemiologist during the course of the coronavirus pandemic, says President Joe Biden went too far when he claimed on 60 Minutes that "the pandemic is over" – especially with a pair of new omicron subvariants making some noise.
"I acknowledge that society has moved on and unfortunately we continue to pay a price for that. But no, the pandemic is not over with yet. Frankly, I think there still are more surprises up Mother Nature's sleeve," Osterholm said Wednesday, speaking to WCCO Radio's Chad Hartman.
The new subvariants stirring up worry are known as BA.2.75.2 and BA.4.6, the latter of which the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed to Bring Me The News Thursday that they have been "paying special attention to" the past few weeks.
"The BA.4.6 sublineage has a mutation in the spike protein that may be involved with antibody evasion, so it’s something we are watching," an MDH spokesperson said.
Omicron sublineage BA.5 remains the dominant strain infecting Minnesotans, with around 95% of all specimen samples between Aug. 28 and Sept. 10 being BA.5. But BA.4.6 has jumped from 128 confirmed cases last week to 150 this week.
BA.2.75 is less prevalent so far, with just 12 confirmed specimen samples in Minnesota, four of which are its sublineage BA.2.75.2 – and the latter is the one Osterholm is concerned about.
"Just in the past week and a half, we've now documented this [BA.2.75.2], which is a variant that looks to be much more immune evasive than anything we've seen to date, by far. And it's starting to grow in its frequency in the public," Osterholm told Hartman.
The arrival of BA.2.75.2 comes just after vaccine makers designed bivalent COVID boosters that target the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. The concern now, as the New York Times reported Thursday, is if BA.2.75.2 becomes widespread "it may blunt the effectiveness" of the bivalent boosters.
Two preprint studies that have not been peer-reviewed were published Friday. One describes BA.2.75.2 as "the most neutralisation resistant variant evaluated to date," while another study from Peking University suggests that "vaccine boosters using BA.5 may not provide sufficiently broad protection."
Osterholm recommends people eligible for vaccines and booster doses get them, because the chance to get "a few months of protection" is "a hell of a lot better than no months of protection." You can find out here where to get a shot in Minnesota.
Nationally, BA.5 comprises 85% of sampled tests. BA.4.6 makes up 10.3% of infections and BA.2.75 is behind 1.3%, according to the CDC. And then there's another one in the headlines: BF.7, which comprised 1.7% of infections in the U.S. Sept. 11-17 and has been taking off in other parts of the world. BF.7 has not been identified in Minnesota.
At this point, none of the three omicron sublineages – BA.4.6, BA.2.75.2 and BF.4.6 – are known to produce more severe disease than the others.
"I don't know what's going to happen this fall into the winter," Osterholm admitted. "But I can tell you one thing though: this virus isn't done with us yet."