As you might be aware, the spread of the omicron variant has been subsiding but that is not to say the pandemic is truly over.
This is because there is another, highly transmissible subvariant of it known as BA.2 that the researchers have been keeping a close eye on.
At this point in time, it does not look like it has the ability to start a large new wave of infection but it could make treatment more difficult and slow down the current decline of COVID-19 cases.
That being said, here are all the things science currently knows about BA.2!
- It’s not actually new.
The omicron variant was first discovered in November and soon after, it became quite clear that the viral lineage was there already in the form of three genetic varieties, each branch coming with its very own set of mutations.
The most common at the time was BA.1 which is why it was quick to spread all over the world.
In fact, it was responsible for the record spike in cases this past winter pretty much all on its own!
In the beginning, BA.1 was actually a thousand times more common than BA.2 but at the start of this year, the latter began to be found in a larger proportion of all infections with COVID-19.
- The available vaccines are efficient against the BA.2 variant.
A pretty important feature of the omicron strain was, from the very beginning, its ability to partly evade the efficiency of vaccines created to fight COVID-19.
As a result, more so-called “breakthrough” infections started happening, leading to a record in cases.
Of course, that is not to say that the vaccines were not still efficient enough to protect people from developing severe symptoms and experiencing other complications that would otherwise lead to hospitalizations and even death.
British health officials have also compared the effect of the available vaccines against both BA.1 and BA.2 infections and have found few differences, all of little significance between them.
Not only that but, in both cases, a booster shot has been found to provide moderately strong protection against catching it as well as really strong protection against hospitalization in case you still get it.
- It’s not currently contributing to another surge of the virus in the United States and it’s not likely to at any point
At the start of this year, BA.2 was becoming more and more common in quite a few countries and by the month of February, it had become the dominant substrain globally, driving down BA.1 which was dominant before.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that in the United States, BA.2 jumped to no less than 11 per cent at the beginning of this month which was a huge increase from the 1 per cent it had registered only a month prior.
This suggests that soon enough, it could become dominant in the U.S. as well.
However, it is important to stress that this does not mean American citizens are currently dealing with a new wave of infection affecting a massive number of new patients.
In fact, the total number of cases dropped by no less than 95 per cent as BA.2 became more common in the country.
At the global level, the total number of daily new cases has also dropped to about half of what it used to be in late January when they had reached their peak.
Meanwhile, due to the fact that many countries have been relaxing their COVID-19 protection regulations, an increase in BA.2 cases could be possible as a result.
According to a new report from British researchers, this might be what is currently happening but even so, there are quite a few different reasons why public health researchers are not convinced BA.2 will end up driving a new massive surge of cases.
- It appears to be easier to catch
As you may be aware, all versions of omicron are extremely contagious, the main reason why this variant was so quick to take over other previous variants such as delta, becoming the new predominant strain of the virus.
Furthermore, studies have shown that amongst all of them, BA.2 is actually even easier to catch than BA.1.
For instance, in Denmark, scientists looked into the spread of both of these subvariants in different households and found that patients infected with BA.2 were significantly more likely to transmit the disease to other people they shared their house with when compared to those having BA.1.
Another example is a study from England that proved that on average, it takes less time for someone with BA.2 to give the virus to another person, which also speeds up the transmission within entire communities.
- Antibodies resulting from previous omicron infections are efficient in fighting BA.2
Scientists were concerned when the omicron variant first surged due to the fact that it was able to escape immunity from previous infections with relative ease.
This was the case because of the fact that it features mutations that change the virus’ surface in such a way that antibodies from previous variants struggle to stick to it.
As it carried quite a few unique mutations when compared to BA.1, scientists were curious if it could evade antibodies from BA.1 infections as well but it does not seem like it.
After all, the World Health Organization previously stated that a previous infection with BA.1 is quite efficient in protecting people from getting infected with BA.2 afterward.
- Authorized medicine works against BA.2 but not all
Just like its predecessor, BA.2 can avoid nearly all monoclonal antibody treatments that have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, which obviously means they are not effective in treating the infection.
On the other hand, some of them, such as AstraZeneca’s Evusheld, do work.
Similarly, molnupiravir, Paxlovid and remdesivir are highly effective against both BA.1 and BA.2 as long as they are taken very soon after a positive test.
- BA. 2 is likely not any more severe than BA.1.
Omicron is quite the paradox due to the fact that, while it is highly transmissible, infections on average are less likely to lead to serious complications that would require hospitalization when compared to the delta variant.
In other words, patients catching omicron usually experience mild symptoms but that does not necessarily mean that the omicron was truly mild.
Due to the fact that it is so easily transmissible, infecting a large number of people, hospitalization and death numbers still went up.
Different studies showed that there are a few reasons as to why this variant is less severe.
First of all, prior infections and vaccinations have helped many people acquire immune defenses preventing the virus from spiraling out of control once omicron appeared.
Secondly, omicron in itself is less severe, causing far less damage to the lungs when compared to previous variants.
Furthermore, Japanese researchers currently experimenting by using infected hamsters with both BA.1 and BA.2 have discovered that the latter causes a more severe response.
Still, at this point in time, it is still not clear how conclusive an experiment involving hamsters can be to the human counterpart.
British scientists have also learned that infection with BA.2 does not come with a higher risk of needing hospitalization than infection with BA.1.
- BA. 2 is no longer the “stealth variant.”
Due to the fact that BA.2 could not be identified via PCR test samples, it was nicknamed the stealth variant.
This made it really challenging for researchers to differentiate between omicron infections and other variants such as delta.
The reason was that BA.2 carried a mutation able to conceal 1 out of the 3 coronavirus genes the tests were made to detect.
With that being said, the missing mutation no longer matters as now, most positive tests involve omicron.
In fact, almost all of the viruses identified by positive PCR tests are BA.1 and the rest of them are BA.2.