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New Variants Are Coming

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Several new Omicron subvariants have been steadily gaining ground in the U.S., setting off alarm bells ahead of fall and winter, when experts say we can expect to see another Covid surge.

They include BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which currently account for 11 percent of cases in the U.S., up from about 3 percent two weeks ago. Other Omicron offshoots are also growing steadily, including BA.4.6, BF.7 and XBB, which has been spreading quickly in Singapore.

For insight into the new variants, I turned to my colleague Carl Zimmer, who covers science.

What do we need to know about these new variants?

All these variants are new versions of Omicron. Omicron showed up almost a year ago, it took over, and it’s been evolving ever since. Some of those mutations are making the variants able to get around the immunity that people may have gotten from being infected by the coronavirus before — even by earlier forms of Omicron.

How will these variants play out in the coming months?

It’s very hard to predict exactly what will happen, and it’s probably going to be different in different places. So one country may see one variant become dominant, and in another country, a different one may emerge. But the key thing is that there are a bunch of different versions of Omicron that are really good at spreading, and they have the potential to make a bad situation worse.

How so?

Winter is coming to the northern hemisphere, so a lot of people are going to be spending a lot of time inside with other people. A lot of people have also decided for themselves that the pandemic is over, and so there’s a lot less wearing of masks. On top of that, the immunity that people may have is waning. So even if there weren’t a lot of new Omicron variants to worry about, this could potentially be a challenging winter. These new variants make it even more concerning because they all have a lot of mutations that we already know are good for evading immunity and spreading quickly.

How worried should we be?

Importantly, there’s no evidence that these new variants cause more severe disease. But the Omicron surge last winter showed us that if a so-called mild variant infects a huge number of people, hospitalizations surge. On the other hand, if there were a totally new variant that came out that could raise people’s odds of ending up in the hospital and of dying, that would be a lot worse.

It’s important that people get vaccinated. And if they haven’t gotten boosters, they need to get boosters. I have seen some projections showing that better vaccine coverage could save many thousands of lives this winter.

What if I’ve already been infected with Omicron?

As far as we can tell, that previous infection will give you some protection. But some protection means you could still get sick.

How are our tools to fight the virus holding up?

That’s a serious problem with these new variants. As the variants develop mutations that evade our immune systems, they are also becoming able to resist some of the monoclonal antibodies that have been so effective until now.

Companies have developed newer monoclonal antibodies that can work, but it takes a long time to get them through the approval process.

Is there any good news?

Fortunately, Paxlovid works against these new variants. The mutations that make them spread so quickly are changes to the surface of the virus where it locks onto cells and where antibodies attach to it. Paxlovid attacks the virus in a different way. It detects the virus after it’s inside the cell and is replicating, and these new subvariants seem to be just as vulnerable to Paxlovid as the earlier variants.

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In October 2021, Rachel McKibbens, a poet who lives in upstate New York, tweeted:

Less than two weeks later, her brother died of Covid as well.

My colleague Nancy Updike, a senior editor at “This American Life” and one of the show’s founding producers, read McKibbens’s tweets and reached out. The result is a new three-part Times audio series, “We Were Three.” It is a story about lies, family and America — what Covid revealed, as well as what it destroyed.

McKibbens hadn’t known her brother was sick with Covid until the moment he told her their father was dead. She was dumbfounded by how much she didn’t know about their last month of life. But then she made a discovery: a cache of texts on her brother’s phone that revealed what happened in their final weeks.

I spoke to Nancy about the series.

What part of Rachel McKibbens’s story resonated with you?

One of the things that struck me about Rachel’s story was the feeling of having a family member who just seems unreachable. About Covid, but also separate from Covid, and predating Covid.

Some people deal with that by writing people off. Rachel was grappling with all of the bad choices you can face in a situation like that with a family member. You’re trying to engage, but also trying to protect yourself, and also not lose yourself in the process.

What does this story tell us about Covid in the U.S.?

It’s a story about Covid, but it’s really about a family. It’s not a story about why the bodies of these two men succumbed to Covid. It’s about all the other cracks that Covid seeped into. It oozed its way into existing fissures within families, and gaps in the medical system, and unfixed problems in our schools, and that has been deadly and tragic and devastating.

What did you learn about Covid and misinformation while making this series?

There are people who have done much deeper reporting on misinformation and Covid, but I have a sense of how it worked in the lives of these two people — Rachel’s father and her brother.

In the case of Rachel’s brother, he was afraid of many things before Covid. And some of those fears were rational, based on an awareness of the precariousness of his position as somebody who was not supporting himself financially and who was isolated socially. So that laid the groundwork for his reasonable fears, as well as those that were fueled by lies and misinformation.

What does this story offer for those picking up their lives after they’ve lost someone during the pandemic?

That is a question I’m sure there are people much more qualified to speak on, but I will say this: Rachel was ready to be in all of her complicated feelings. To the extent that you can do that, it seemed to me to be a better way to mourn than anything I’ve discovered in my life.

In general, America doesn’t do grief that well. It’s time-consuming. And it should be. It’s life-shaping. So if you haven’t felt like you’ve been able to grieve someone, or you’re looking for somebody to grieve with — Rachel’s grieving. And she’s not afraid of it.

Listen to “We Were Three” here.

Monkeypox

Polio

Countries pledged $2.6 billion in funding to the World Health Organization to eradicate polio, DW reports.

Ebola

The W.H.O. said it was concerned about the outbreak in Uganda after eight recent infections had no known contacts with current patients, Reuters reports.

The U.S. sent experimental antibody drugs to Uganda to help prevent infection among health care workers, Reuters reports.

Other viruses

New research suggests that a warming climate may bring Arctic viruses into contact with hosts, causing “viral spillover,” France 24 reports.

We asked readers to share their journal entries from the pandemic. If you’d like to share yours, you can do so here.

March 6, 2020. Sacramento, Calif. We are all set with major arrangements to travel to England to board a ship, in August, doing a trans-Atlantic crossing in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s passage — but the coronavirus hit the world. As of today, there are 21 cases in California. Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who is scheduled to go to Alaska on a cruise in July. She canceled her trip. I hadn’t even considered doing that. I called the travel insurance company last night and the recording said “fear of the coronavirus is not a cause for cancellation” and that unless a person has a policy that includes “cancellation for any reason” there will be no coverage. They even said trips to China would not be covered if canceled, even though that’s the epicenter of the epidemic and the U.S. Administration has banned travel to China. Amazing! I am hopeful, if warranted, our cruise line will cancel on their own accord. — Lori Abbott Moreland

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back Friday. — Jonathan

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