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New COVID Variant Appeared In the US. What to Know About Omicron’s ‘Stealth’ Version BA.2

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A descendant of the omicron variant has been detected in at least 40 countries, including the United States, and scientists and health officials throughout the world are keeping an eye on it.

Because of some genetic features that make it considerably difficult to detect, this strain of the coronavirus, known as BA.2, is commonly considered stealthier than the original type of omicron. Some scientists are concerned that it may be more contagious.

However, they claim there is still a lot they don’t know about it, such as whether it is more resistant to immunizations or causes more severe sickness.

Where has BA.2 spread?

Since the middle of November, almost 15,000 genetic sequences of BA.2 have been uploaded to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data. 96 of the sequencing cases came from the United States as of Tuesday morning.

“Thus far, we haven’t seen it start to gain ground” in the United States, according to Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, which has identified three cases of BA.2.

In Asia and Europe, the mutant appears to be far more common. According to Statens Serum Institut, which is part of the Danish Ministry of Health, it accounted for 45 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Denmark in mid-January, up from 20 percent two weeks earlier.

What’s known about BA.2?

There are several mutations in BA.2. About 20 of these are shared with the original omicron in the spike protein that studs the exterior of the virus. However, it features additional genetic alterations that were not present in the initial version.

According to Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, it’s uncertain how significant those mutations are, especially in a population that has experienced the original omicron.

For the time being, the original BA.1 and BA.2 versions are considered subsets of omicron. However, if it is judged a globally significant “variant of concern,” global health experts may assign it its own Greek letter moniker.

The quick spread of BA.2 in some areas raises fears that it will spread further.

“We have some indications that it just may be as contagious or perhaps slightly more contagious than (original) omicron since it’s able to compete with it in some areas,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily know why that is.”

According to an initial analysis conducted by scientists in Denmark, there are no differences in hospitalizations between BA.2 and the original omicron. Scientists are still investigating how contagious this variant is and how effective current immunizations are against it. It’s also unknown how effective medicines will be.

As per Yahoo, doctors are also unsure if someone who has already been sickened by COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2. They are optimistic, however, because a prior omicron infection may reduce the severity of sickness if someone acquires BA.2.

According to Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the two versions of omicron have enough in common that infection with the original mutant “will give you cross-protection against BA.2.”

Scientists will be conducting tests to see if antibodies from an infection with the original omicron “are able to neutralize BA.2 in the laboratory and then extrapolate from there,” he said.

How concerned are health agencies?

The World Health Organization classified omicron as a variation of concern, the most dangerous coronavirus mutant classification, but it does not give BA.2 its own classification. However, the organization argues that inquiries into BA.2 “should be prioritized” because of its rise in several nations.

Meanwhile, the UK Health Security Agency has designated BA.2 as a “variant under investigation,” citing rising numbers in the UK and around the world. In the United Kingdom, however, the original version of omicron remains dominant.

Why is it harder to detect?

Because of what’s known as “S gene target failure,” the original version of omicron had certain genetic traits that allowed health officials to quickly distinguish it from delta using a specific PCR test.

This genetic quirk does not exist in BA.2. So, according to Long, BA.2 looks like a delta on the test.

“It’s not that the test doesn’t detect it; it’s just that it doesn’t look like omicron,” he said. “Don’t get the impression that ‘stealth omicron’ means we can’t detect it. All of our PCR tests can still detect it.”

What can you do to protect yourself?

Doctors recommend the same precautions they’ve always recommended: be vaccinated and follow public health advice about wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and staying at home when unwell.

“The vaccines are still providing good defense against severe disease, hospitalization, and death,” Long said. “Even if you’ve had COVID 19 before — you’ve had a natural infection — the protection from the vaccine is still stronger, longer-lasting, and actually … does well for people who’ve been previously infected.”

The latest version is another reminder that the pandemic hasn’t ended.

“We all wish that it was over,” Long said, “but until we get the world vaccinated, we’re going to be at risk of having new variants emerge.”

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: BA.2 variant: What to know about ‘stealth’ version of omicron

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