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Scientists Are Learning More About ‘Stealth Omicron’ Variant Causing 1/3 of All New COVID Cases

Scientists Are Learning More About ‘Stealth Omicron’ Variant Causing 1/3 of All New COVID Cases

The coronavirus mutation which scientists have dubbed “stealth Omicron” is now causing more than a third of new COVID cases around the world, but scientists still don’t know how it could affect the future of the pandemic. This week, a technical advisory group for the World Health Organization (WHO) advised public health authorities to monitor it as a distinct Omicron strain.

Researchers are slowly revealing clues about the strain, a descendant of Omicron known as BA.2, while warily watching it become ever more prevalent. Early research suggests it spreads faster than the original Omicron, and in rare cases, can sicken people even if they’ve already had an Omicron infection.

BA.2 has been found in more than 80 countries and all 50 U.S. states. In a recent report, the WHO said BA.2 was dominant in 18 countries and it represented about 36% of sequenced Omicron cases submitted in the most recent week to a publicly available international database where scientists share coronavirus data. That’s up from 19% two weeks earlier. In the United States, BA.2 caused about 4% of COVID cases during the week ending February 19th, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The percentage was lower in some regions and higher in others, hitting about 7% in New England.

 

There’s mixed research on whether it causes more severe disease, but the currently available vaccines appear just as effective against it. “We’re all keeping an eye on BA.2 just because it has done particularly well in some parts of the world,” including parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas.

No one knows for sure how BA.2 will affect the pandemic, but COVID-19 cases are dropping globally, including in some of the places where BA.2 is prevalent. Some experts believe BA.2 is unlikely to spark new surges but may slow COVID declines in some places.

WHO officials stress that the pandemic isn’t over and urge countries to remain vigilant. Doctors said individuals should do the same and remember that vaccines and boosters offer excellent protection against the worst effects of COVID-19, no matter the variant. “For people who aren’t boosted, please get boosted. For people who aren’t vaccinated, it’s never too late,” Dr. Long said. “Your best defense against COVID is still the vaccine.”

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