UK health chiefs are now officially watching ‘stealth’ version of Omicron
UK health chiefs are now officially eyeing a ‘stealth’ version of Omicron, fearing it has spread to more than 1,000 people.
The UK Health Security Agency said today that BA.2 is a ‘variant under investigation’.
This category is reserved for variants spreading in the UK that are likely to be more transmissible and more able to evade vaccines than other mutated strains.
Others on this list include a Delta offshoot (AY.4.2) that raised concerns last year because it was slightly more contagious than the parent strain, and the ‘Mu’ variety.
This is just one step lower than a ‘variant of concern’, for mutated strains that could alter the course of the pandemic. Omicron, Delta and Alpa all fall into this category.
About 78 cases have been confirmed in the UK so far, but only a fraction of infections are checked for variants, meaning the actual toll could be closer to 1,000.
It has the same mutations as Omicron, in addition to others that make it more difficult to detect with a standard PCR test.
Early data suggests it’s more transmissible than Omicron, though nothing in the numbers suggests it’s more likely to cause serious illness.
Scientists said it seemed unlikely that BA.2 would have a “substantial impact” on the course of the pandemic, but that it would likely replace Omicron in the coming months due to its “optimized” mutations.
To date, approximately 8,000 cases have been recorded worldwide, with most cases in parts of India and the Philippines. Outbreaks are increasing in Denmark, Germany and the UK.
The above figures – from the UK’s largest Covid surveillance center – show the locations where BA.2 has been detected in the UK
Above are all countries where BA.2 has been spotted. Cases are on the rise in Denmark, Germany and the UK, and it is already dominant in parts of India and the Philippines
Pictured above is the estimated number of BA.2 cases in the UK according to one of Britain’s largest Covid monitoring centers, the Sanger Institute. The UK currently only controls about 10 percent of infections for variants due to the large outbreak
The UKHSA announced in a Tweet that they had classified BA.2 as an investigated variant, but it was later hastily removed.
The agency has yet to publish its weekly technical briefing on the state of the variant situation in the UK.
dr. Tom Peacock, one of the first scientists to alert the world to the Omicron variant, poured cold water on concerns about the variant.
He said: ‘I would be surprised if BA.2 caused a second wave at this point. Even with slightly higher portability, this is definitely not a change from Delta to Omicron, and instead it will likely be slower and more subtle.
“That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if BA.2 slowly replaces (Omicron) with slightly more ‘optimized’ mutations in the coming months.”
What do we know about BA.2? Do we have to worry?
What is BA.2?
This is an offshoot of the Omicron line.
It carries all of its parent’s mutations, but also has a change that makes it more difficult to detect using PCR tests.
Omicron’s outbreak was easy to track because it has an S gene falling out, unlike Delta, meaning it shows up easily in PCR tests.
But this is not the case with BA.2.
Is it more dangerous?
Early analysis suggests that this subvariant is slightly more transmissible than Omicron.
It’s already the dominant species in parts of India and the Philippines, scientists say, with cases now increasing in the UK, Germany and Denmark.
But there’s no evidence to suggest it’s more likely to cause serious illness.
Do I have to worry?
dr. Tom Peacock, one of the first scientists to warn the world about Omicron, says there’s no need to be overly concerned.
The expert from Imperial College London said he doesn’t think the variant will have a “substantial impact” on the current wave.
Professor Francois Ballous, a geneticist at Imperial College London, says people who are not obsessed with Covid should treat it as the same disease as Omicron.
The scientist from Imperial College London added: ‘Very early observations from India and Denmark suggest that there is no dramatic difference in severity compared to (Omicron).
“This data should somehow solidify in the coming weeks.
‘I also agree that there are probably minimal differences in the effectiveness of vaccines against (Omicron) and BA.2. It’s quite likely.’
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said he would not treat BA.2 separately from Omicron.
“I recommend anyone not obsessed with (Covid) variant minutiae to consider both as ‘Omicron’ unless evidence emerges that there could be a meaningful (disease) difference between the two.”
While information is still emerging, a key difference of the Omicron-like lineage is that it cannot be detected almost immediately.
This aspect of the original Omicron is known as the S gene dropout and means it can be detected using a PCR test as opposed to more complicated lab analyses.
The fact that BA.2 does not have this S-gene dropout means that this shortcut cannot be used, and thus is more difficult to track as an outbreak.
The first case in the UK was discovered on December 13.
Since then, 52 more infections have been reported, but there are likely many more in the country.
Britain is currently only checking 10 percent of all cases for Covid variants due to the scale of the outbreak.
UKHSA Director Dr. Meera Chand said a modified form of Omicron was not unexpected, as viruses are constantly evolving and mutating.
She said: ‘Our ongoing monitoring allows us to identify them and assess whether they are significant.’
SAGE scientists have suggested that another variant will emerge in the coming months that will be more transferable than Omicron.
Some expect the virus that mutates to be more transmissible, but less capable of causing serious illness.
It came as the latest Covid surveillance showed that the number of cases among primary school children in England is already rising, which could be a sign of the back-to-school effect.
Statisticians at the Office for National Statistics estimate that eight percent of young people aged two to 11 had Covid on any given day in the week to January 15, the equivalent of one in 13, a slight increase from 7 percent the week before. .
The rate, based on Pap smears from 160,000 people across the country, is the highest of any other age group, with 20- to 34-year-olds having the second highest rate (one in 17).
While rates fall or level off in every other age group, they still rise in children. Only five percent of young people under the age of 12 had the virus a month earlier.
The children returned to classrooms on January 4 after a two-week break over the festive period.
Despite rising infections among primary and preschool children, the ONS found that infections have fallen across England for the first time since Omicron launched last week.
It estimated that about 2.9 million people were infected on any given day in the week to January 15, a “welcome drop” from the record 3.7 million the week before.
The ONS survey is considered the most reliable indicator of the outbreak in the UK, as it uses random sampling of around 100,000 people, rather than relying on people who come forward to be tested.