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COVID: BA.5 is ‘most transmissible variant we’ve ever seen,’ doctor says

Dr. Calvin Sun, an attending emergency medicine physician and founder of The Monsoon Diaries, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest COVID news and the transmissibility of the BA.5 variant.

Video Transcript

RACHELLE AKUFFO: New COVID-19 cases are back over 100,000 a day as the latest Omicron sub variant BA.5 spreads. Well, here to tell us what this means for the rest of our summer is Dr. Calvin Sun, clinical assistant professor and emergency medicine attending physician, and the Monsoon Diaries founder and CEO. Good to have you back on the show, Dr. Sun. So what do we need to know about this current surge with BA.5 and where it's spreading?

CALVIN SUN: It depends. I always say that. It depends. But it really does depend where you are. So to give you a good context, the first COVID that we saw in March 2020, the first ever, the RNOT was 4, which means that for every one person that got infected, three to four people in the room who were unvaccinated, well, there was no vaccines at the time for COVID, would get infected. BA.5 is 18. That is the most infectious, most transmissible variant, we've ever seen, and on par with measles, which is the most transmissible disease before COVID.

And 18 is a lot. And that's something that's very concerning. But the difference now is that depending on where you are, most of us are vaccinated. So that 18 number doesn't apply. It's 18 people in the room that are not vaccinated, and not protected, and hasn't been infected before. So that's why the reaction should be a little mixed. It's bad, but it's not apocalyptic.

DAVE BRIGGS: And in terms of the severity of it, how does it compare to prior? And also, doctor, how much are we undercounting cases, given that most people A, are not testing, and those that are are not reporting? We talk about 100,000 cases a day. Where are we in all likelihood?

CALVIN SUN: Yes, I think we're suffering more from a case of pandemic fatigue. And monkeypox is a new kid on the block. So we're seeing some of that now. And we only have so much bandwidth to really focus. I mean, come on. One epidemic pandemic at a time. Yes, COVID is there, has been around the longest. So we know how to better treat it and manage it after three years. I hope we learned something by now. But that's the thing that it's not just us, but also the people that aren't bothering to test for it.

The increase in rates and transmission are only the people who are bothering to test for it. There are some people who are getting symptoms and say, I'm vaccinated, I'm boosted, I'm not going to end up in the hospital. And I'm not going to test. So those are the only ones we know about. What matters actually, as you said, the severity. You can't fake that. It's not like they choose not to die or not.

But the death rate has actually remained very low, consistent. The hospitalization rate has been remained flat. And because those are remaining flat and not peaking, we have essentially flattened the curve with vaccinations, and people who have been infected before. So the increase in transmission and the infection rates of those who are bothering to test in the first place isn't as concerning as the severity, which is the flattened rates of hospitalizations and deaths.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Sun, there's been talk and there's been reports, the White House considering possibly a second booster shot for all US adults. Does that make sense?

CALVIN SUN: Yeah, why not? I mean, I've gotten three boosters, I mean, three shots with a booster, one of the first, and I've been traveling and living a pretty normal life compared to the time when we weren't vaccinated where I couldn't even get out of the house unless it was for work. So if you are in a position who are a little older, or we have risk factors, or you have a high risk of being hospitalized, why not? Just get it. Because that prolongs your ability to live as normal of a life as possible.

If you want to take that risk and not do it for whatever reasons, that's a personal decision. But you then must accept the consequences of things like not putting on a seatbelt when you get into a car. So yeah, plenty of times you get into a car, you don't get into a car accident. You didn't wear a seatbelt. But the time that you get into a car accident, what do seatbelts do? They lower your chance of being hospitalized.

You can't prevent car accidents just like you can't prevent infections. But if you choose not to wear a seat belt, you're just increasing your own risk of being hospitalized and dying, even though we know seatbelts can be harmful too. It doesn't mean you don't put on a seatbelt.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And that's certainly a fair analogy. I want to ask you about some of these reinfection rates and things like long COVID. What are we seeing in those spaces? And how is the government response now different at this point in the pandemic versus when things were at their peak?

CALVIN SUN: I think that we have more of a breathing-- I mean, unless monkeypox takes up all the attention soon, we are seeing more cases of that. They are giving a lot more breathing room to look into long COVID now that we also have time to call things like long-COVID. I mean, it's hard to call things long anything if it's a first pandemic of our generation. You can't call anything long. It's been around for a month. But now it's been three years. We're now looking and we have the space and resources to look at the long term sequelae, or the after effects, of someone that has been infected COVID.

And we can do different research on the people who are vaccinated versus unvaccinated and see what the long term sequelae of that is. So it all depends on your-- when you got-- it's a lot of variables now to work with, when you've been boosted, the exposure that you had in your local communities, the number of people who are vaccinated within your local communities, and if you've been infected before, whether you've been a carrier that was asymptomatic, or somebody that was really symptomatic but recovered.

And all these things, it boils down to the data and research that we now have to do to look at what are the long term after effects of having been exposed to COVID over and over and over and over again, whether it's with the antibodies or without antibodies from a previous infection, or being vaccinated. And that, time will tell. And we'll find out conclusions when we have more data coming in.

DAVE BRIGGS: You mentioned monkeypox a couple of times. How seriously is the government taking it? How seriously should the rest of us?

CALVIN SUN: I'm getting deja vu. I mean, we got our first few cases and we didn't know where to test or where to send off tests. We had to use empty urine cups to send off cotton swabs instead of these test specific-- or monkeypox. And the problem is that monkeypox has been around for a while. So we should have a more robust testing system for that.

So us having to go through that when someone comes in with a potential case of monkeypox, called the Department of Health, going through all these hoops, and then swabbing for things and doing it in MacGyver-ish style where we Jerry rig a urine cup to put in a cotton swab that we use for other things, and then sending that off.

It's like, come on. Are we really going through this dance again? The lucky thing, unlucky if you will, the more reassuring part is that no one is really dying. COVID, when it came in March 2020, within two to three weeks, we saw increasing hospitalizations, and people dying. Monkeypox has been around, and this current epidemic has been around for a few weeks now of testing. And it's really just holding steady. But no one was really dying. So that's been a big breathing room for all of us right now. So we're trying to juggle two epidemics at once.