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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

Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

As the weather warms up and tourism returns to Germany, this spring feels more normal than the last two years. So what is the pandemic situation in Germany - and how will it develop?

Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

Covid cases falling – but lots of unreported infections

The number of Covid infections in Germany has been falling recently, according to official figures. On Tuesday, 107,568 Covid infections were logged within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 218 deaths. The 7-day incidence fell to 522.7 infections per 100,000 people. 

The Robert Koch Institute’s weekly report from May 5th stated: “The peak of the current wave has clearly been passed, many hospitalisation indicators and and deaths continue to decrease.”

But experts warned that “the infection pressure remains high with almost 600,000 Covid-19 cases transmitted to the RKI within the last week”.

It’s worth keeping in mind that many cases of Covid are going unreported. 

Johannes Nießen, chairman of the Federal Association of Public Health Service Physicians, told Tagesschau: “Many rapid tests are not confirmed by PCR testing. And since only PCR testing is included in the incidence-value calculation, we assume that the incidence value is at least twice as high as reported.”

READ ALSO: Germany reports no Covid deaths: What does it mean?

Changes to testing 

There was a time a few months ago when you had to queue for a long time to get a Covid test in Germany. But after the testing priorities changed (with a focus on PCR testing for key workers and vulnerable groups) and Covid restrictions were eased, test stations became quieter. 

And at the end of May, there will be another key change – government-funded Schnelltests will no longer be free to the public. So it won’t be possible to run to your nearest test station to check on your infection status if you think you have Covid. You’ll either need to buy a self-test or pay for a test at the centre. 

A pop-up Covid testing station in Münich.

A pop-up Covid testing station in Münich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

… but there are still Covid restrictions in place 

The so-called 3G and 2G rules – meaning people had to show some kind of proof to enter a venue like a restaurant – are no longer in place across Germany. 

Mask rules were also relaxed around the beginning of April.

But people in Germany still have to wear a Covid mask on public transport as well as long-distance trains and planes. They also remain in places where there are lots of vulnerable people such as hospitals, care homes and shelters for the homeless.

Some independent businesses and organisations can, however, ask visitors to wear a mask or take a test. 

Covid isolation rules are still in place but they have changed, too.

Now people who get a positive Covid test have to isolate for at least five days. They have the possibility to end it after five days if they haven’t had symptoms for 48 hours, or with a negative test (depending on the state rules). If symptoms or positive test results persist, isolation can last a maximum of 10 days. 

READ ALSO: Germany sets out new Covid isolation rules

Reinfections on the rise

It is unclear exactly how many people have been infected more than once. But figures from the Baden-Württemberg state health office show that cases of reinfection are increasing. In December 2021, the share of reinfections in the south-west state stood at 0.5 percent, and in April it rose to 3.6 percent. However, these are only the numbers that have been reported. 

Experts say the reason for the increase in reinfections since the beginning of the year is the Omicron variant. Virologist Martin Stürmer told Tagesschau: “In the beginning, we had the variants Alpha to Delta. The variants were so similar that the antibodies continued to provide good protection against infection or reinfection after vaccination or infection.

“With the Omicron variant, however, the virus has changed so much that this is no longer the case, so that reinfections occur more frequently despite vaccination, boosting or recovery status.”

However, Stürmer said vaccination does protect against severe illness. 

Within the Omicron variant, reinfection with the BA.2 sub-variant after an infection with BA.1 is rare, according to Stürmer. 

Although Omicron has been shown to cause less severe illness in the population in general, ‘long Covid’ – where symptoms persist for a longer period of time – is still a concern and something experts in Germany are watching closely. 

What about new variants?

Experts are urging people to be aware that new variants could emerge in the current climate. 

Stürmer said it’s important to keep in mind that “by allowing a lot of infection, we also allow the emergence of new variants, because basically the mutation rate is higher if we allow a lot of infection”.

“The virus changes,” he added, “and it may be that at some point there will be another variant that challenges us more.”

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said in April that he expected the pandemic situation to be more relaxed in the summer. But he warned of possible waves and future variants in autumn.

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