Travel Health Update With On Call’s Chief Medical Officer: Omicron BA.5 Variant

There’s a new coronavirus variant traveling around this summer – it’s a variant of Omicron called BA.5. While this is not something that should be taken lightly, On Call’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Michelle Nathan, says: “There’s no need to panic. The good news is that BA.5 variant infections have been mild for many people with symptoms manifesting more like the common cold.” Interested in learning more about what the BA.5 variant? Dr. Nathan is here to help by answering some of the most frequently asked questions we’ve received on this topic, as well as some actionable advice for those with upcoming travel plans.

How is this variant different than other variants?
Dr. Nathan:
BA.5 can evade our existing immune defenses, so that means we’re seeing more infections with BA.5 than we have with other variants. However, while there’s a high risk of exposure for BA.5, the infections are still mild for many people. 

Are the symptoms of BA.5 similar to other strains of COVID-19?
Dr. Nathan:  The symptoms are a lot like a common cold with sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, fatigue, and some fever. There have been some anecdotes that suggest there is more sneezing and more sinus congestion compared to other Omicron variants.

If a traveler has recently recovered from COVID, can they still contract the BA.5 variant?
Dr. Nathan: Yes. One of the main challenges of the BA5 variant is that it can evade previous immunity. This means that it can infect people who have had previous infections, even from Omicron, and people that have been vaccinated. 

If a traveler has recently received a COVID vaccine or booster, can they still contract the BA.5 variant?
Dr. Nathan:
Yes, but the good news is that for vaccinated patients, most BA.5 variant infections have been mild. The vaccine helps prevent death, being hospitalized, or ending up on a ventilator due to a COVID BA.5 infection. There is also some suggestion that vaccination may protect  from long COVID as well.

What are your thoughts on COVID antiviral treatments? Are they available overseas?
Dr.Nathan: Antivirals are a vital part of treatment for patients that need them. Most people with mildly symptomatic COVID infection will not need antiviral treatment.  Some antivirals (like Paxlovid) are used for non-hospitalized patients at risk for severe infection, whereas other antivirals (like Remdesivir) and monoclonal antibodies are used for hospitalized patients under specific circumstances. The availability of antiviral treatment varies in different countries.  Most countries with well-developed healthcare systems will have antiviral treatments, but keep in mind that they may use slightly different medications in individual countries. Countries with fewer resources are less likely to have antiviral therapies, especially for non-hospitalized patients.

How can one up their protection against BA.5 while traveling? 
Dr. Nathan:
First, travelers should be aware of the case counts in the areas in which they are traveling—this information will help them make more informed decisions about their travel plans. If a traveler is not vaccinated and is looking to reduce their risk of contracting COVID while traveling, they should get vaccinated or get a booster (if  eligible). Unvaccinated people have a five-time higher chance of contracting the virus than those who are vaccinated and boosted! Continue with good hand hygiene-frequent hand washing, use of hand sanitizer, and avoid touching the face and nose.  Keep wearing a high quality, well-fitted mask when in crowded or poorly ventilated conditions; examples include airports, bus /train stations, and shuttle buses. Additionally, if one has other medical issues, they should ensure that those conditions are well managed and controlled, and that they’re traveling with all the medications they need (and pack some extra in case of any delays!).

If a traveler tests positive for COVID while they are away, should they seek medical care? 
Dr. Nathan: If a traveler is sick with concerning symptoms (severe shortness of breath, chest pain, confusion), they should seek immediate medical care.  Additionally, if the traveler is at risk for complicated infections, they should also seek medical attention. Depending on what area of the world the traveler is in, obtaining medical care can present some challenges—on that note, I highly recommend travelers work with their organization’s travel risk management provider for resources and assistance with obtaining the medical care they need in their destinations.


Want to Learn More?

For over 25 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and watch our video to learn more. You can also stay in touch with On Call’s in-house risk management, travel health and security experts by signing up for our quarterly Travel Risk Management (TRM) newsletter.

The information provided within this post has been compiled from a multitude of available sources, and is based on the current news and situational analysis at the time of writing.