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COVID-19 STATS

Omicron ‘sub-variant’ throws up new virus 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 effect future pandemic spread.

Omicron 'sub-variant' throws up new virus questions
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. Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP

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 Friday 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 Denmark.

“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 told AFP.

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 Friday.

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.

‘Comparable severity’

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.”

He added that “there is likely to be minimal differences in vaccine effectiveness against BA.1 and BA.2. Personally, I’m not sure BA.2 is going to have a substantial impact on the current Omicron wave of the pandemic.

“Several countries are near, or even past the peak of BA.1 waves. I would be very surprised if BA.2 caused a second wave at this point. Even with slightly higher transmissibility this absolutely is not a Delta-Omicron change and instead is likely to be slower and more subtle,” he forecast.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday that BA.2 did not look as if it would prove a game-changer as variants appear on the scene “fairly regularly”. But he indicated he would reserve judgment.

“What we know for now is that (BA.2) more or less corresponds to the characteristics that we know of Omicron” mark one.

Member comments

  1. So Omicron 2.0 is basically mild then? Are they sure they haven’t made any mistake here? In over 40 countries already most media would have ejaculated it all over tv by now.
    Better stock up on loo roll.

    1. > So Omicron 2.0 is basically mild then?
      Unknown, it’s only recently been found, so its characteristics are still unclear. Since it is very probably a mutation of BA.1 (“Omicron 1”), there is a possibility it will be quite similar; maybe slightly more infectious, maybe not; maybe also “mild”, maybe not; etc. Of course, Omicron itself is a mutation of Delta, so it could also be / become another VOC (Variant of Concern), possibly after further mutation.

      And Omicron is “mild” only in a sense a FULLY-vaccinated individual, WITH booster and no other conditions, is extremely unlikely to hospitalised if they happen to be infected (infection is, sadly, SLIGHTLY more likely than the other VOCs for such fully-vaccinated and boosted people).

      > Are they sure they haven’t made any mistake here?
      No, “they” are not sure. There is simply insufficient evidence at the moment to say with reasonable certainty.

      One problem with BA.2 is most tests cannot distinguish it from Delta. Genetic sequencing is necessary, which is both slow and expensive. Hence, the reported BA.2 rates are largely based on sampling (sequencing a portion of) test specimens.

      > In over 40 countries already most media would have ejaculated it all over tv by now.
      I have no idea what point is being made here.

      > Better stock up on loo roll.
      Hoarding is both selfish and not useful.

      What IS both not-selfish and very useful — and this cannot be overstressed — is a full vaccination course, with booster as soon as eligible.

      1. >Omicron is “mild” only in a sense a FULLY-vaccinated individual, WITH booster and no other conditions, is extremely unlikely to hospitalised if they happen to be infected .

        That does not explain South Africa. where only ~27% of the population were vaccinated. Let alone boosted. I’d love to know why that is. Why 76% of hospital cases were incidental. Why the doctor that found the omicron variant went on so many news sites saying it was mild and we were over reacting. Data from ONS. World of Data the statistics Office of Germany all show more mild cases regardless of vaccination status. Less death, less oxygen. Less hospitalizations.

        Media have been pushing fear hard. Fear sells. They were so quick jumping on how deadly all other variants were including Omicron and media forms public opinion if you want another lockdown. Feed the masses body bags and they will beg for it (the body bags dont even need to be full.).

        Hoarding is dumb and inefficient I agree. But being prepared is not. Everyone should have enough supplies for at least 36 hours minimum. Be prepared if there’s a power cut. Have candles. Toilet paper was a reference to the great toilet paper shortage of 21. Where the un prepared couldn’t use velvet soft for a week.

        >What IS both not-selfish and very useful — and this cannot be overstressed — is a full vaccination course, with booster as soon as eligible.

        With regards to this I have moved firmly into the Anti vax group with pride. The evidence that this vaccine is doing even the little its proclaimed to be doing is waning. The EU have said that 4 boosters may have an effect on your immune system so does the WHO.
        A blurb from a study in the lancet. Says of the 3000 participants they found the boosters have almost no effect. (All participants are over 30. And 50% were over 70).

        As for selfish. It doesn’t stop you catching it. Spreading it. Getting sick. Going to hospital. Or dying from covid. It as is claimed by the manufacturers lessens symptoms. Er-go would it not actually be a selfish act in taking it?

        Just to clarify. I am in favour of everyone who wants/needs the vaccine to get it. And they can do so as much as they like.. anyone who does not want it should not take it. <I really want this to be peoples mantra for the times we live in.

  2. So what news of Covid B.1.640.2 (IHU) discovered in Marseilles from someone who had spent 5 days in Cameroon and infected at least 12 people several weeks ago?

  3. You can almost guess that days, weeks, months from now we will be reading about how this fellow or a family member contracted covid, suffered previously, and perhaps died.

    Three shots of Pfizer or Moderna dramatically lower your chances of a severe case, hospitalization, and death. One best friend (with four children) was not vaccinated and died. Another best friend was vaccinated. Her bout with covid omicron was short and at home. She lives. These are anecdotes, not science, but science tells the same story.

    My nephew, a pediatric ICU M.D., gets to watch the unvaccinated overwhelm his first class hospital because of idiots like this guy.

    Someone’s not getting vaccinated is not an individual choice — it is an assault on all of us.

    1. David I assume your talking about me. Firstly I’m not against vaccination. If you need/ want it. Have it as much as you like. If you don’t. Don’t have it. That is unfortunately the price we pay to live in a free society.
      I support the anti vax movement because they want you to have bodily sovereignty. Which includes the right to make a bad decision.

      The data that is coming out of the EU medicines agency. The lancet. Canada, South Africa. ONS. World in numbers. Show that vaccination status is irrelevant for Omicron.

      I can speak nothing of your nephews experience same as you can’t speak of mine.

      I dont understand how someone not getting vaccinated is an assault on you. Please explain.

      1. This is an extremely misleading comment. “The data that is coming out of the EU medicines agency. The lancet. Canada, South Africa. ONS. World in numbers. Show that vaccination status is irrelevant for Omicron.”

        What exactly do you mean by “irrelevant”. Stop throwing this information around carelessly, Please, your credibility suffers greatly.

        1. By irrelevant i mean the Omicron can and does evade the booster as much as the the first 2 jabs. I agree I could post with a little more clarity sometimes.
          I would happily post sources. With direct links. But when I do my comments are either taken down or await mediation without resolution. I throw those organisations out there as that is where I get my info from.
          Most people will choose to ignore anything that doesn’t follow their own perception of reality.

        2. Large drop in omicron neutralization by antibodies from vaccines

          The new study tested the ability of antibodies generated by vaccination to neutralize the omicron variant in laboratory assays that pitted antibodies against live viruses and against pseudoviruses constructed in the lab to mimic omicron.

          Antibodies from people double-vaccinated with any of the four most widely used vaccines—Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson—were significantly less effective at neutralizing the omicron variant compared to the ancestral virus. Antibodies from previously infected individuals were even less likely to neutralize omicron.

          Individuals who received a booster shot of either of the two mRNA vaccines are likely to be better protected, although even their antibodies exhibited diminished neutralizing activity against omicron.

          “The new results suggest that previously infected individuals and fully vaccinated individuals are at risk for infection with the omicron variant,” says Ho. “Even a third booster shot may not adequately protect against omicron infection, but of course it is advisable to get one, as you’ll still benefit from some immunity.”

          Posted in nature and on columbia University website.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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