What You Should Know

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently tracking a few new cases of two more sub-variants of the highly virulent SARS-CoV-2 Omicron strain to see whether they are more contagious or hazardous. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated Monday that it has added BA.4 and BA.5 to its list of Omicron variants to monitor. This will help to understand their potential for immunological escape. The World Health Organization (WHO) is already monitoring other Omicron family members, including BA.1 and BA.2 — the subvariant that is currently worldwide dominant — and BA.1.1 and BA.3.

BA.4 (yellow) and BA.5 (orange) now rising and displacing BA.2 (blue) in South Africa

According to the UK Health Security Agency, the former has already been found in Scotland and England, with each country reporting one case as of 30 March (UKHSA). In a report published by the UKHSA last week, health officials stated that there were “possibly physiologically important alterations” in the two variants under consideration. Also, Botswana and South Africa both reported cases of BA.4 and BA.5, and Denmark confirmed cases of BA.4 variant. It doesn’t look like BA.4, and BA.5 are yet causing a spike in infections in South Africa, and the Omicron variant is expected to keep changing, says Tulio de Oliveira, who runs the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa. 

How Do These New Covid-19 Variants Develop?

All viruses evolve over time, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes the Covid-19 infection. It is natural for minor changes or mutations to occur as a virus replicates. When a virus acquires one or more mutations, it is classified as a variant of the original. Experts believe that when a virus spreads widely through a population, such as with the Covid-19 pandemic, the chances that it will change become more likely. Most viral alterations have no effect on a virus’s ability to cause infections or other serious health consequences. However, if some qualities of the virus are altered — for example, altering the virus’s ability to spread or the severity of the sickness it produces — the effect can be enormous.

Should We Be Worried About These New Omicron Variants?

Scientists are still understanding the information about the new omicron variant (BA.4, BA.5). BA.5 detected in South Africa currently has a 84% growth advantage against BA.2. BA.4 detected in South Africa currently has a 63% growth advantage over BA.2. Both BA.4 and BA.5 have the L452R pathogenic mutation, which is also found in the Delta variant. Since these variants are now already dominant in South Africa, it is unclear what this means for the rest of the world, as we are already experiencing much bigger BA.2 waves than they did – but scientists will be keeping an eye on this especially as cases begin to develop in the UK.

BA.4 and BA.5 share a similar spike profile as BA.2, except for additional mutations: 69-70del, L452R, F486V. Reversion to wild type: Q493 (Q493R in BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3)

Experts warn that the global community should exercise caution. More research is ongoing, and hopefully, we will get to know more about these variants shortly. The primary concerns are that these variants may have acquired mutations that make them more transmissible. If they contain many mutations in the critical spike protein that vaccines target, it may make vaccines less effective.

Another significant concern is that countries with low vaccination rates like South Africa and Botswana have cases of the new omicron variants. This might mean that persons who have previously been infected with the previous Covid-19 variants and recovered are at risk of reinfection with these new variants. The mutation in the new variants might make them elude additional immune responses elicited by other variants. However, this notion is based on preliminary evidence.

It was too early to determine the interaction of the new variants and the immune profile generated by previous infections. It is the reason why prompt research about these new variants is critical for the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. While additional information about these variants becomes available, we should not expect these variants to be the final variants to emerge from the pandemic.

This should be a helpful reminder that #CovidIsNotOver.

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