As European nations continue to ease pandemic restrictions, COVID-19 cases are rising again due to the spread of a new coronavirus subvariant called omicron BA.2. That suggests the U.S. may soon face a surge.
COVID-19 cases in the U.K. increased 48% the week of March 6 compared with the week before, while hospitalizations rose by 17%, according to CNN. Over the past seven days, 492,103 people tested positive, U.K. government data shows. Despite the increases, preliminary research shows BA.2 does not present a higher risk of hospitalization than the original omicron strain known as BA.1, the U.K. Health Security Agency said.
U.S. public health experts are paying close attention.
“If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it is that the trends in Europe precede our own,” Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told NBC News.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, attributed the rise in U.K. cases to three factors: the prevalence of BA.2, the relaxation of COVID-19 safety measures and waning immunity from vaccinations or past infections.
“Without a doubt, opening up society and having people mingle indoors is clearly something that is a contributor, as well as overall waning immunity, which means we’ve really got to stay heads-up and keep our eye on the pattern here,” Fauci told CNN. “So, that’s the reason why we’re watching this very carefully.”
The U.K. has removed almost all public health precautions to limit the spread of the virus. An exception is Scotland, where mask rules in stores and public transport will stay in place until April because of the surge in cases.
Britain’s Heathrow Airport announced it would remove mask mandates for passengers starting today.
“While we still recommend wearing them, we can be confident the investments we’ve made in COVID-secure measures — some of which aren’t always visible — combined with the fantastic protection provided by the vaccine will continue to keep people safe while traveling,” Heathrow’s chief operating officer Emma Gilthorpe told the BBC.
Still, the so-called stealth omicron now dominates cases in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. According to the Office of National Statistics in the U.K., the BA.2 variant accounted for more than half of the cases sequenced during the week ended Feb. 27. COVID-19 cases linked to the BA.2 variant increased across the U.K. in the week ending March 5.
Germany, Austria and the Netherlands also have seen jumps, according to data published by John Hopkins University.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the new subvariant accounts for nearly a quarter of new cases, according to CBS.
CDC wastewater surveillance data showed increased COVID-19 levels from March 1 to March 10, according to Bloomberg, although cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue their downward trend, the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker shows.
“These bumps may simply reflect minor increase from very low levels to still-low levels.” Amy Kirby, head of the CDC’s wastewater monitoring program, told NBC News in a statement.
Kirby cautioned that some parts of the country could see a further rise in cases due to the relaxation of COVID-19 measures.
Dr. Deborah Dowell, chief medical officer of the CDC’s COVID-19 response, said so far BA.2 does not appear to be driving a big increase in U.S. cases.
“Although BA.2 does seem to be growing as a proportion of sub-lineages in the United States, it’s not nearly as quickly as we’ve seen in some other countries,” Dowell told a webinar hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America over the weekend, according to CBS News. “The doubling time in the United States actually seems to be slowing down.”
This latest stage of the pandemic is highlighting the difference between countries’ COVID strategies. China is still pursuing a “zero tolerance” approach, locking down cities as it battles its biggest outbreak since early 2020.
European nations and the U.S. never set a goal of zero COVID, instead relying on vaccines and public health guidance.
Congress last week passed a $1.5 trillion spending bill that did not grant the administration’s request for additional pandemic funding.
In response, the White House told reporters Tuesday that the omission would leave the nation in a tough spot and would not allow the administration to offer booster shots for free to the entire population if that becomes recommended, according to CNN.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that a fourth shot would be “necessary” to prevent further infection.