Since the onset of the pandemic well over two years ago, several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been identified. Variants of COVID-19 – and all RNA viruses, for that matter – occur when there is a mutation in the virus’s genetic makeup. They are a common and an expected part of a virus’s natural cycle. For example, the influenza (flu) virus mutates roughly every year.
Last summer, the COVID-19 Delta variant spread through the world at a mind-boggling speed. A few months later, when cases were finally starting to subside, the Omicron variant was identified and quickly became the predominant and most contagious COVID-19 variant globally. And now, epidemiologists are keeping a close eye on a new, highly transmissible subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, which seems to be spreading even faster than the original strain.
What is the Omicron BA.2 Subvariant?
A virus’s variant can have several different genetic variations, known as subvariants. Last year, when the Omicron variant furiously swept through the globe at lightning speed, the subvariant known as BA.1 was by far the most prevalent, so people just called it ‘Omicron.’ In fact, scientists were already aware of BA.2 at the time, but up until spring of this year, the BA.1 subvariant was a thousand times more common than BA.2.
Over the past few weeks, though, BA.2 has been causing an alarming spike in cases across the United States, Europe, and Asia, and it’s close to becoming the dominant subvariant worldwide. Nicknamed ‘stealth’ Omicron, BA.2 has a unique genetic mutation that makes it show up differently in lab tests in contrast to other Omicron subvariants.
Should I Be Concerned About BA.2?
It’s too early to tell whether this new subvariant will cause another record-breaking surge. But what we know so far is that BA.2 seems to be even more contagious than BA.1, which has been the most transmissible variant since the beginning of the pandemic. Experts suspect that BA.2’s exploding growth may be due to its unique genetic composition: it has 8 new mutations that weren’t present in BA.1. And it seems as though these mutations may make the virus even better at propagating itself.
That being said, cases in the United States have been steadily rising for the past few weeks for the first time since late January, and some forecasts predict that cases could rise by over 50% by the last weeks of April.
Do Vaccines Protect Against the BA.2 Subvariant?
While vaccination plus a booster shot may provide protection from getting seriously sick with Omicron and its subvariants, it’s still possible to get infected with BA.2 even if you are fully vaccinated, since the vaccine itself is designed to offer protection against severe Covid illness, but is not 100% effective at preventing infection. Fortunately, the BA.2 subvariant doesn’t seem to be more severe than the previous version of Omicron.
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