New Covid variant dubbed ‘Omicron’s sister’ is ‘under investigation’, health chiefs warn
A NEW Covid strain dubbed "Omicron's sister" has been designated a variant under investigation by UK health chiefs.
It originally emerged in early December, not long after Omicron started spreading around the world.
The sub-lineage is known as BA.2, with most cases of Omicron from the original BA.1 variant.
It has many of the same mutations as Omicron - but current case rates are very low.
A string of positive studies show Omicron is milder than other strains in the vaccinated - with vaccines thought to still be effective against this new variant, BA.2.
Experts have said there is little to be concerned about at the moment, and crucially, there is no evidence of it being any more severe.
Initial studies from Denmark, where the sub-variant has spread quickly and makes up half of all Omicron cases, shows no difference in hospitalisation risk.
The latest data from UKHSA found it appears to be able to spread faster than original Omicron, but more research is needed to be certain.
There have now been 426 cases of BA.2 since December 6 in England, with London seeing the most sub-variant infections at 146.
Data from the Sanger Institute up to January 8, shows 1,641 estimated UK cases - as tests are thought to only pick up about ten per cent of the true total.
It has been seen in many countries since November and is nowhere near to outcompeting Omicron.
The first samples were submitted from the Philippines with 40 countries now having logged 8,040 sequences of the sub-variant.
BA.2 is missing a key mutation that allows labs to discover and then flag up cases, which could make it harder to track.
Scientists have suggested it could be more transmissible, and trickier to distinguish from other variants when using PCR tests.
But Danish health officials, who have seen the most cases of BA.2 so far, say Covid vaccines are thought to still be as effective.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “We are learning to live with this virus - and thanks to our world-leading surveillance system we can rapidly detect and carefully monitor any genetic changes to Covid-19.
“Our exceptional vaccine rollout means the number of people severely affected by Covid-19 is low, and the UK’s innovation and research has discovered life-saving treatments for those most at-risk from Covid-19.
“As we cautiously return to Plan A, I encourage you to give yourself and your loved ones the best protection possible and Get Boosted Now.”
The new sub-variant was first spotted in South Africa, Australia and Canada - initially found in a South African man who had travelled from Gauteng, a hotbed in the Omicron outbreak.
Dr Meera Chand, Covid-19 Incident Director at UKHSA, said: “It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it’s to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic goes on.
"Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant.
"So far there is insufficient evidence to determine whether BA.2 causes more severe illness than Omicron BA.1, but data is limited and UKHSA continues to investigate.
“Case rates remain high throughout the UK and we must remain vigilant and take up vaccinations. We should all continue to test regularly with LFDs and take a PCR test if symptoms develop”.
Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said early evidence from suggested there was no difference in severity.
He tweeted: "There is likely to be minimal differences in vaccine effectiveness against BA.1 and BA.2.
"*Very* early observations from India and Denmark suggest there is no dramatic difference in severity compared to BA.1. This data should become more solid (one way or another) in the coming weeks.
"So how worried should we be? Those working in sequencing/surveillance should definitely be keeping a close eye on BA.2 (and very likely already are!).
"Personally, I'm not sure BA.2 is going to have a substantial impact on the current Omicron wave of the pandemic...
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"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."
Covid booster jabs protect against Omicron and offer the best chance to get through the pandemic, health officials have repeatedly said.
The Sun's Jabs Army campaign is helping get the vital extra vaccines in Brits' arms to ward off the need for any new restrictions.
It comes as the R rate has fallen dramatically this week in another sign that Omicron has peaked in England.
The R rate now sits between 0.8-1.1 in England, crashing down from 1.1-1.5 last week.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an end to Plan B restrictions, with working from home being scrapped.
Vaccine passports will be dumped along with requirement to wear face masks anywhere indoors.
The guidance to work from home was dropped effective immediately - meaning Brits could go back to the office this week.
The remaining rules will expire on January 26, meaning the changes will kick in on Thursday morning.
Scientists have also said that Omicron deaths have peaked and will start to drop within days.