What To Know About New Omicron Variant

 

Omicron: What do we know about the 'stealth variant'?

Scientists identified the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron in India and South Africa in late December 2021. It has spread to several countries, including the United States, and the United Kingdom.

The subvariant virus has also spread rapidly in Denmark, increasing from 20% of all COVID-19 cases in the country in week 52 of 2021 to 45% in the second week of 2022. Despite its rapid spread in the country, initial analyses show no difference in hospitalizations between the BA.2 subvariant and the original form of Omicron, also known as BA.1.

Studies are still ongoing to understand the infectiousness of BA.2, alongside how effective vaccines are against it. While BA.2 is not currently a variant of concern, public health officials in the U.K. have taken enough interest in its spread to designate it as a variant under investigation.

Up until now, the overwhelmingly large majority of all Omicron cases has been BA.1. However, in some places, the BA.2 has emerged and has spread faster than BA.1. This variant is interesting because it seems to be displacing Omicron in certain parts of the world. There is speculation that it may be more transmissible than the other versions of the sub variants.

If some countries are now reporting a surge in the proportion of BA.2 subvariant infections, is it because the additional mutations make it more transmissible or allow it to evade the immune response more easily than the other Omicron subvariants?

These are some of the questions that public health experts must take into consideration while keeping this subvariant under observation. While researchers are still gathering data on how BA.2 may affect the population at large, laboratory studies have already verified many of its molecular properties. BA.2 is missing the spike 69-70 mutations, so it does not cause S gene target failure, making it harder to identify on PCR tests.

It remains to be seen how BA.2 will compete against currently circulating viruses, and also whether it causes more severe disease. We know that this has been a variant that has been present since the early days of Omicron and that it has some similar and some distinct mutations. It is unclear, as of now, whether it is more transmissible.

Even if vaccinated, people should consider adhering to nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as face masks, physical distancing, and handwashing, particularly when in crowded and/or high transmission environments.

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