Forgotten by the media for several weeks, theof Covid is making headlines again with the BA.4 and BA.5 variants which are settling in France, after their breakthrough in Portugal in particular. Specialists in the epidemiology and evolution of infectious diseases within the “Infectious diseases and vectors” unit: , Evolution and Control” (University of Montpellier, CNRS, ), Mircea Sofonea, , and Samuel Alizon, research director, decipher the situation in France. What can we say about these variants? Will they cause a new this summer ?
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The Conversation: The Omicron variant, which has become the majority worldwide, continues to spread and evolve. But his new avatars are now designated as BA.1, BA.2, then BA.4 and BA… How to find your way around?
- The Conversation: The Omicron variant, which has become the majority worldwide, continues to spread and evolve. But his new avatars are now designated as BA.1, BA.2, then BA.4 and BA… How to find your way around?
- TC: Are these mutations innovations of these variants, or do BA.4 and BA.5 “dip” into all the possibilities that were tested by their predecessors – Delta, Gamma, Beta, Alpha?
- TC: Why are BA.4 and BA.5 now spreading in France?
- TC: The situation in Portugal could have caused concern. But can we learn from the trends observed in other countries?
- TC: Can we anticipate the consequences of these replacements between variants on future epidemic peaks?
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Samuel Alizon: Indeed, there is enough to get lost in this abundance of nomenclatures! Greek letters were introduced by the World Health Organization ( Where are much more suitable. Moreover, the WHO seems to have stopped its updates and groups under the generic term of Omicron all the variants of type BA.) in 2021 with the Alpha variant. This is probably the worst classification, because it was developed without taking evolutionary biology into account. Those of
We modeled (see above) and the first Omicron wave caused by the BA.1 line emerges at the end of 2021. This was quickly supplanted by which caused a second hospital wave in April 2022. Now, it is the BA.4 and BA.5 lines that take precedence.
Mircea T. Sofonea: These lineages were identified in May, but they would probably have emerged during the month of December 2021 in South Africa, potentially fromin France since March 2022.
While the BA.2 variant was as different from BA.1 as thewas from the evolutionary divergence between BA.4 and BA.5 is more limited.
However, even if the number of new mutations is limited, some are challenging. Thus, the 452R mutation of theSpike is known to confer greater affinity with the human ACE2 receptor, used by the to enter our cells. The 486V mutation, still in the confers on it a rather great capacity of immune evasion to the virus.
Nevertheless, one should be careful with the reasoning byapplied to isolated mutations. For the effect of the latter is neither absolute nor cumulative; it depends on the whole with potential synergistic phenomena and including for remote positions on the (we speak of epistasis).
TC: Are these mutations innovations of these variants, or do BA.4 and BA.5 “dip” into all the possibilities that were tested by their predecessors – Delta, Gamma, Beta, Alpha?
MTS: Let’s remember thatis not the descendant of the previous variants, but a distant cousin, and that viruses do not mutate in a voluntary or directed way. The mutations detected in the genome of a new line appeared by chance.
The 452R mutation was not present in the BA.1 or BA.2 lines, but was found in the. It is moreover one of the three mutations sought in the screening tests currently carried out on all positive in France.
The 486V mutation is not associated with any of the lines circulating within our which consist in generating proteins with mutations, had identified it as being potentially involved in the escape to the .but
In the case of BA.4 or BA.5, as their differences with BA.2 are quite limited, they could only be mutations fixed as the virus circulates.
TC: Why are BA.4 and BA.5 now spreading in France?
HER : One can easily estimate a growth advantage of one line over another in a population. According to our team, that of BA.5 is around 9% in France compared to BA.2.
On the other hand, it is complicated to know where this advantage comes from. Does BA.5 spread more, because it is more and an highlight the role of immune escape, in particular via the 486V mutation.? Or because it escapes immunity better? A
Whatever the origin of this advantage, it can contribute to an epidemic rebound in France.
At this rate, #BA5 could be in the majority next week on the ground.
— ETE Fr (@ete_fr) June 8, 2022
MTS: A second mechanism is also at work in France:anti-SARS-CoV-2 – essentially that is, at the same time – declines with time since the last immunogenic event (whether infection or ).
If the protection conferred by an Omicron infection orremains noticeable after five months vis-à-vis a serious form, it is on the other hand very reduced vis-à-vis any infection. The susceptibility of the population to the virus, that is to say the counterpart of collective immunity, is therefore reconstituted over time, ultimately opening up the possibility of an epidemic resumption.
In summary, BA.4 and BA.5 propagate as our immunity ages, and do so faster than BA.2, because they have a double advantage of contagiousness and immune escape. BA.4 and BA.5 therefore induce a wave sooner than BA.2 would have done.
TC: The situation in Portugal could have caused concern. But can we learn from the trends observed in other countries?
MTS: I have reservations about intercountry comparisons: they are more and more delicate, because current circulation depends, in addition to the health measures in place, on the epidemiological and immunological history, which is increasingly differentiated according to the country.
At the level of France, it is even still difficult to quantitatively compare the relaxation of measures contributing to the recovery, and the summer context which limits it, with longer and warmer days favoring social interactions in an open environment.
HER : Portugal is one of the European countries where the BA.4/BA.5 wave is the most advanced and is accompanied by an increase in hospitalizations. It is complicated to know why it started there so early but, as with all the beginnings of epidemics, .
Globally, in South Africa, the BA.4/BA.5 wave seems to be on the decline. In the United States, on the other hand, BA.2 was first replaced by the BA.2.12 lineage, but this appears to be being replaced by BA.5.
TC: Can we anticipate the consequences of these replacements between variants on future epidemic peaks?
HER : In 2021, in France, a new variant replaced the old ones, because it was more contagious. Since December 2021, it is rather thewho leads the way.
On the other hand, including the time elapsed since the last vaccination or natural infection is a challenge, because, after two years of pandemic, two vaccination campaigns and a huge BA.1 wave, everyone now has a different immunity!
MTS: We have developed tools to take into account this heterogeneity of immunity in populations. Given our constraints, but, in theory, it should be possible to use this framework to explore short-term prospective scenarios.
For the moment, it is difficult to say what the exact magnitude of the new epidemic wave that is beginning will be. This wave, in the genetic or virological sense, is already well advanced and BA.5 will probably become the majority by June 20. If we can count on the summer to reduce thecompared to the it alone will not prevent a wave of . As a reminder, one of the traffic peaks in France remains August 2020, and peaked in July 2021.