Omicron’s new variant cousin, BA.2, has arrived in the US. But don’t panic yet, experts say.

Story Highlights:

  • At least four states have reported cases of omicron BA.2 – California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington – as well as on three other continents.
  • There are about 20 mutations in the COVID-19 vaccine region in the newer variant, just like in the original omicron.
omicron
omicron

Omicron’s new variant BA.2

At least four continents are infected with a new variant of omicron. However, it shouldn’t cause panic, Massachusetts scientists said Tuesday.

As compared to two years ago, when COVID-19 was first discovered, there are now many tools available to combat the disease, and omicron BA.2 resembles its cousin in its mildness.

“I don’t think it’s going to cause the degree of chaos and disruption, morbidity and mortality that BA.1 did,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to continue to move to a better place and, hopefully, one where each new variant on the horizon isn’t news.”

In places like Massachusetts, where omicron hit hard late last year, COVID-19 cases are on the decline, but BA.2 cases are on the rise in the Philippines, India, Denmark, and South Africa, said Lemieux. Several U.S. states have reported cases, including California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington.

The original omicron variant, which is now referred to as BA.1, may or may not become part of BA.2, he said.

It is not clear which of these variants is driving the outbreak in Denmark, for example, as BA.2 is on the rise whereas BA.1 is falling. Since they’re currently in about 50-50 conflict, “it is not clear which variant is driving the outbreak,” Lemieux said.

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After a huge surge around Thanksgiving, BA.2 cases in South Africa have been dropping dramatically as BA.1 cases are now more prevalent.

“What we don’t know and still have almost no information on is what impact this will have on case counts, on hospitalizations, on deaths,” he said.

Scientists still do not know how transmissible BA.2 is when compared to BA.1, said prof. Jeremy Luban, of the UMass Medical School’s department of molecular medicine, biochemistry, and molecular pharmacology.

The Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness organized a media call with Lemieux, Luban, and other medical experts on Tuesday.

Moreover, Luban said it is too early to speculate about whether BA.2 will be immune to vaccination and existing medication.

  As with the original omicron, the newer variant exhibits lots of mutations, including about twenty in the area primarily targeted by vaccines. The mutations in BA.2 differ from those in BA.1, which may limit the effectiveness of monoclonal antibodies, he said.

“We don’t know what the significance of these mutations are going to be, especially in a population that has already encountered BA.1,” Luban added that BA.2 may be given its own Greek name in order to set it apart from Omicron.

Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, noted that people who caught omicron after infecting themselves with the delta variant are not certain whether they will remain vulnerable to BA.2.

Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, which focuses on immunology research, said that T cells, which seem to prevent severe disease after vaccination, may still be effective against BA.2.

“It’s T cells that probably have a major effect on the disease course once somebody does become infected,” he said. “It’s encouraging that at least from the T cell side – they may not be protected from getting infected but (vaccines) should help mitigate disease.”

Lemieux does not know from where or when BA.2 was first created, but it appears to have diverged from BA.1 a number of months ago.

“We don’t know what the factors are that are promoting the spread of BA.2, whether it’s chance, whether it’s intrinsically more transmissible, whether it’s more transmissible in the context of natural immunity against BA.1 – those are answers we’ll start to get over the coming weeks,” Lemieux said.

Explaining the BA.2 subvariant of omicron

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