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Omicron ‘sub-variant raises new questions

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Health workers stand outside a building placed under lockdown at the Kwai Chung Estate public housing complex in Hong Kong on Saturday, amid a rise in coronavirus cases fuelled by the Omicron variant. AFP

Omicron ‘sub-variant raises new questions

Scientists are keeping a close watch on a recently-discovered sub-variant of the Omicron version of the Covid-19 virus to determine how its emergence could affect future pandemic spread.

The initial Omicron variant has become the dominant virus strain in recent months but British health authorities have notably identified hundreds of cases of the latest version, dubbed BA.2, while international data suggest it could spread relatively quickly.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) identified more than 400 cases in Britain in the first ten days of this month and has indicated the latest variant has been detected in some 40 other countries, accounting for a majority of most recent cases in some nations including India, Denmark and Sweden.

The UKHSA indicated on January 21 that it had designated the BA.2 sub-lineage as a variant under investigation (VUI) as cases of it were on the increase even if, in Britain, the BA.1 lineage currently remains dominant.

The authority underlined that “there is still uncertainty around the significance of the changes to the viral genome”, which required surveillance as, in parallel, cases in recent days showed a sharp rise in BA.2 incidence notably in India and Demark.

“What surprised us is the rapidity with which this sub-variant, which has been circulating to a great extent in Asia, has taken hold in Denmark,” French epidemiologist Antoine Flahault said.

Scientists must evaluate how the virus, which has engendered the worst global health crisis in a century, continues to evolve and mutate. Its latest incarnation does not possess the specific mutation used to track and compare BA.1 against Delta, the previously dominant strain.

BA.2 has yet to be designated a variant of concern – but Flahault says countries have to be alert to the latest development as scientists ramp up surveillance.

“[France] expected a spike in contaminations in mid-January: It didn’t happen and perhaps that is due to this sub-variant, which seems very transmissible but not more virulent” than BA.1, he observed.

“What interests us is if this [sub-variant] possesses different characteristics” from BA.1 in terms of contagiousness and severity, France’s public health agency said on January 21.

To date, only a handful of BA.2 cases have emerged in France – but the country is monitoring developments as they spread across the Channel.

Flahault, director of the University of Geneva’s Institute of Global Health, says the watchword is not panic but “vigilance” as “for now we have the impression [BA.2 case] severity is comparable to” classic variant Omicron cases.

“But there are numerous questions on the table” and a need to monitor properties of the new variant on the block.

“Very early observations from India and Denmark suggest there is no dramatic difference in severity compared to BA.1,” tweeted Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College, London, adding the latest variant should not call into question the effectiveness of existing vaccines.

Peacock stressed that “we do not currently have a strong handle on . . . how much more transmissibility BA.2 might have over BA.1. However, we can make some guesses/early observations.”

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