MUSC researchers explain COVID omicron variant characteristics

Published: Aug. 5, 2022 at 5:42 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2022 at 9:49 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As of this July 30, more than 600 South Carolinians are in the hospital with COVID-19. That is the highest number of the summer, according to the state health department.

It is significantly less than the last spike in January of this year when about 2,500 people were hospitalized.

The Medical University of South Carolina has been sequencing the COVID-19 virus since last year. That is how researchers find out what variants are impacting people the most.

Julie Hirschhorn is the Director of Molecular Pathology at MUSC. Researchers found that current summer cases are mutations of the omicron variant called BA.4 and BA.5.

“There are certain mutations that can lead to the disease being more easily passed from one person to the next,” Hirschhorn says. “There are also mutations that can lead the virus to evade our immune system, which means to get around the antibodies that our bodies make.”

In this case, Hirschhorn says the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are getting more transmissible. Researchers say that is why people may test positive more than once in a shorter period of time.

“It could feel like you know, for some people that they’re getting it multiple times in a relatively short period of time,” Hirschhorn says. “And probably a lot of that is being driven by these different variants strains.”

She says although it is quite contagious, the current omicron mutations, the symptoms are often mild.

“In a lot of ways, it’s very encouraging, with the BA.4 and BA.5 variants that you know, it’s unfortunate that they’re more easily spread, but there is a little bit of a silver lining in that the hospitalizations don’t seem to be as high,” she says.

MUSC has been sequencing and researching the COVID-19 virus and its variants since 2021. The research funding is from the CARES Act, but it is going to end soon. MUSC says they will still provide samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but will not be tracking the variants as closely at a local level when the funding ends.

“We know we’ll see the end of our COVID Cares Act dollars, but the CDC is continuing their sequencing efforts,” Hirschhorn says. “We might just not have as much granularity here in the Lowcountry without our local sequencing effort.”

You can find weekly hospitalization numbers and information from DHEC here:

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