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Omicron’s sister has arrived, and Covid may be here to stay

After wreaking havoc all over the world, pushing up the number of coronavirus cases to all-time records, the highly contagious Omicron variant has already begun to subside in many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, or Spain. However, a new version of Omicron, called BA.2, has recently been detected in several countries. The new variant raises new doubts that the pandemic is near its end, and suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may soon turn into an endemic virus. 

Estimated to be 1.5 times more contagious than the original Omicron variant BA.1, the sister-variant BA.2 (which emerged from a common ancestor with BA.1) has already become dominant in Denmark and India. However, according to Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke and scientists from Denmark’s top infectious disease authority, Statens Serum Institut (SSI), the emergence of this sub-variant is no reason to panic.

“There is no evidence that the BA.2 variant causes more disease, but it must be more contagious,” Heunicke told a news conference on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. 

“There is some indication that it is more contagious, especially for the unvaccinated, but that it can also infect people who have been vaccinated to a greater extent,” added SSI’s technical director Tyra Grove Krause at the same news briefing. 

Due to this sub-variant, Denmark’s Omicron peak may extend a bit further into February than previously estimated, but will not cause significantly more hospitalizations and deaths, said Krause.

During the past week, about one hundred BA.2 cases have also been detected in the United States, but this number is likely underestimated and is expected to skyrocket very soon. However, as in the case of Denmark, many U.S  scientists are not very worried that BA.2 might become a serious game-changer. 

“Variants have come, variants have gone,” said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University School of Medicine. “I don’t think there’s any reason to think this one is a whole lot worse than the current version of Omicron.”

Other scientists though, including those from the World Health Organization (WHO), are more cautious, and refrain from making any sweeping statements regarding the nature and possible impact of BA.2. 

Jacob Lemieux is an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who is helping lead a state program studying coronavirus variants. He said that while we can already be certain that BA.2 will soon displace BA.1 as the dominant variant, what we don’t know, and still have almost no information on, is what impact this will have on case counts, on hospitalizations, on death.

“As of 24.01.2022, the BA.2 descendent lineage, which differs from BA.1 in some of the mutations, including in the spike protein, is increasing in many countries. Investigations into the characteristics of BA.2, including immune escape properties and virulence, should be prioritized independently (and comparatively) to BA.1,” urged WHO.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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