A new subtype of the Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading in Denmark, UK, India, Sweden and many other countries. The exact impact of genome mutations is still unclear.
We already know from the first BA.1 variant of Omicron that it is significantly more contagious than previous coronavirus variants. Now a subtype, BA.2, has emerged. At least 400 people were infected with it in the first 10 days of January in the UK. And it has already been detected in more than 40 other countries around the world.
Most detections in Denmark
The PANGO coronavirus directory, regularly updated by scientists from the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Cambridge, lists Denmark as the worst affected area, with 79% of cases detected so far.
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It is followed by Great Britain (6%), India (5%), Sweden (2%) and Singapore (2%). However, it should be noted that subtype detection depends on the ability of individual health systems to sequence PCR tests.
Danger posed by Omicron BA.2 still unknown
The rapid spread of the new subtype suggests it may be even more contagious than the original Omicron variant. The UK Health Safety Agency (UKHSA) has classified BA.2 as a “monitored variant”.
“It is in the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it is to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic continues,” said Meera Chand, Director incidents at the UKHSA. “Our ongoing genomic monitoring allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant.”
For the BA.2 subtype, this analysis is still in progress.
“So far, there is not enough evidence to determine whether BA.2 causes more severe disease than Omicron BA.1,” Chand said.
Vaccination remains important in the face of new mutations
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid added that the emergence of the new variant shows the continued importance of vaccination: “I encourage you to provide yourself and your loved ones with the best possible protection and to strengthen you now.”
French epidemiologist Antoine Flahault told French news agency AFP: “What surprised us was how quickly this sub-variant, which circulated widely in Asia, took hold in Denmark.” .
Meanwhile, infections with the BA.2 subtype have so far not been more severe than with the BA.1 subtype.
French Health Minister Olivier Véran remains relaxed about BA.2: “What we know for now is that [it] more or less matches the characteristics we know of Omicron,” he told AFP.
Scientists concerned about possible Omicron-delta recombination
Meanwhile, German virologist Christian Drosten from the Charité University Hospital in Berlin pointed out in an interview with public radio Deutschlandfunk that the combination of one of the two Omicron variants with delta could, however, lead to the development of a even more dangerous viruses. Omicron has certain mutations on its surface protein, the so-called spike protein, with which it can more easily evade the body’s immune defences.
This trait could become particularly dangerous through recombination, which “carries the spike protein from the Omicron virus to continue enjoying this immune advantage, but has the rest of the delta virus genome,” Drosten said.
Thus, the strongest characteristics of the two variants could come together.
“There is such a thing, it has already been described, you have to fear that such a thing could happen right now,” Drosten warned.
Just recently, a researcher in Cyprus had reported a new variant which could be a recombination of the two variants of the virus. However, the discovery of this “deltacron variant” has not been widely accepted. Experts say the discovery could also be attributed to contamination of samples in the lab.