It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the pandemic. More than 379 million cases have been confirmed around the world since tracking began. And even now — as we’ve spent two full years living with the coronavirus — the virus and ways to address it are still relatively new to the medical world, so researchers are learning as they go.
Still, the amount of information about the coronavirus is dizzying. It’s hard to keep track of what’s known, what’s a myth and what guidance we should follow. That’s why HuffPost has rounded up five of the most important new things we learned about COVID-19 in January.
1. There’s a new version of the omicron variant, called BA.2
In January, researchers began closely tracking a new strain of the omicron variant, known as BA.2, which has already been confirmed in the United States.
The news grabbed a lot of headlines and certainly sounds unsettling given how omicron has swept through much of the country. But experts have been clear that the new variant is not cause for panic yet. Also, they’ve known about it since December, but are tracking it more closely now because it is highly contagious — and spreading.
While initial evidence suggests that BA.2 — or “the stealth variant” as some people are calling it — is 1.5 times more transmissible than the initial omicron variant, health officials say our vaccines are holding up well and continuing to protect people against the most serious outcomes.
Plus, there’s no evidence at this point that BA.2 makes people any sicker than the initial omicron variant. That earlier omicron variant has certainly led to an explosion in cases nationwide, but generally causes milder illness than earlier versions of the virus. That said, mild and asymptomatic are not the same thing, and one can have “mild” illness and still feel pretty darn sick.
2. Kids under 5 might start getting vaccinated in February
At the very end of January, The Washington Post reported that the Pfizer vaccine might be available for children under the age of 5 far sooner than the drug manufacturer and health officials had previously estimated. Children in that age group could start getting their shots at the end of February, according to the report.
For many months, health officials hoped young kids would be eligible for vaccination relatively early on in 2022. Then Pfizer released disappointing data showing that its two-shot regimen did not create a sufficient immune response (though the shots were safe). At that point, health officials and doctors began guessing that shots likely wouldn’t be available until the spring.
The Washington Post reported that Pfizer is expected to apply for emergency use authorization for the vaccine as soon as this week, which could make the first shot available to younger children almost immediately.
3. There are four factors that contribute to risk of long-haul COVID
A January study identified four clues that someone is at particular risk of developing long-term symptoms after their initial COVID-19 infection.
They include: having a higher viral load in their blood early in the infection; the presence of certain antibodies that help fight off the virus; reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus (which most people get infected with at some point in their lives); and having Type 2 diabetes. The vast majority of patients who developed long-haul COVID-19 in that study had at least one of those factors.
Experts hope that by identifying risk factors for long-haul COVID-19 they will be better able to intervene early and help combat people’s symptoms over time. Though estimates are imprecise, it’s believed roughly 10% of people infected with COVID-19 develop long-term symptoms that can last for months.
4. COVID vaccines don’t hurt fertility — but getting COVID might
Several studies published in January offered reassurance to people trying to conceive. One investigation found that patients who are vaccinated and undergoing in vitro fertilization had no significant differences in their response to ovarian stimulation (when eggs are harvested), egg quality, embryo development or overall pregnancy outcomes.
Another study looked at outcomes among more than 2,000 couples trying to conceive over the past year and found no differences in those who were vaccinated — though men who got COVID-19 seemed to experience a dip in their fertility for several months.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccines and about pregnancy,” Jane Frederick, a reproductive endocrinologist based in California, previously told HuffPost. “But we should be encouraging all of our pregnant patients and people who are thinking about fertility treatments to all get vaccinated and protect themselves.”
5. Throat swabs might help with COVID testing, but many experts disagree
The idea of swabbing your nose and throat when taking an at-home COVID-19 test went kind of viral in early January, and some health experts said it’s not a bad idea. The thinking? You could have different amounts of the virus in your nose versus in your throat — and throat samples could be better at detecting omicron, which tends to replicate more efficiently in the upper respiratory tract.
But not everyone agrees. Test manufacturers, for one, say it’s important to use their tests exactly as directed or their results might not be reliable. And a recent non-peer-reviewed study suggests that when it comes to rapid antigen testing, throat swabs are less accurate than nasal swabs. That’s why groups like the Food and Drug Administration have said that people should use nasal swabs as directed, not throat swabs.
In mid-January, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said it’s just too soon to say whether swabbing both your throat and nose is a good idea. As has so often been the case throughout the pandemic, researchers and doctors are learning about best practices in real time.
“There have been recent reports that, in fact, [there may be higher] sensitivity and ability to detect [the virus] in a swab of the throat versus the nasopharynx, at least with omicron,” Fauci told the Senate health committee. “I think it needs to be validated and verified.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.