Is The New Omicron Subvariant Worth Worrying About?
Health officials say that the new omicron subvariant, BA.2, is spreading, but is that something you really need to worry about?
According to the World Health Organization, the latest incarnation of the coronavirus, the BA.2 “subvariant” of omicron, has been found to be spreading worldwide. A WHO scientist said that she was concerned about the development because samples of BA.2 may not be spotted as a form of omicron.
The BA.2 subvariant has begun to replace omicron’s more common “original” BA.1 variant in countries such as Denmark. Data from there suggests no difference in disease severity, according to another WHO official.
One of three Omicron sub-variants, the BA.2 variant has become the main strain circulating in several countries, including Denmark, the UK, India, and South Africa. According to reports, this latest subvariant has as many as 27 mutations that are not found in the original Omicron variant, BA.1.
In an online briefing, Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi of WHO said, “We are very concerned.” Adding that BA.2 was proving hard to identify because it was not always picked up by the S-Gene Target Failure criterion, which is used to distinguish the original omicron from other variants.
Gumede-Moeletsi said the WHO was working very closely with laboratories, asking them to forward samples that had come back without being flagged as omicron for further analysis in order to gain a more precise picture of the spread of BA.2.
The BA.1 version of omicron has been somewhat easier to track than prior variants. That is because BA.1 is missing one of three target genes used in a common PCR test. Cases showing this pattern were assumed by default to be caused by BA.1.
BA.2, sometimes known as a “stealth” subvariant, does not have the same missing target gene as the original omicron variant.
Instead, scientists are monitoring it the same way they have prior variants, including delta, by tracking the number of virus genomes submitted to public databases such as GISAID.
As with other variants, an infection with BA.2 can be detected by coronavirus home tests kits, though they cannot indicate which variant is responsible, experts said.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Dr. Dorit Nitzan, regional emergency director for the WHO, explained the expected trajectory of the subvariant and what it could mean for the future of the pandemic.
“The expected trajectory is that it will become the new dominant variant, as once it crosses past a certain threshold, it becomes dominant – like we’re seeing in Denmark and the UK,” she said in answer to whether or not other countries can expect to see a similar rise in subvariant cases in the coming weeks. However, she said, there does not seem to be a risk of reinfection for those who have already contracted the original Omicron variant, as the two variants are not different enough, although there is not yet enough research to be absolutely sure.
In terms of the similarities and differences between BA.1 and BA.2, Nitzan explained that the most prominent difference right now is the transmissibility of the sub-variant.
“It moves from person to person much faster,” she explained. “If you’re with someone in a room who has the virus, you will get it. The moment you take your mask off to drink and eat – you never know when you’ll get it. We can see this in Denmark; it moves so quickly.”
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