Experts Warn Against Panic as New BA.2 COVID-19 Variant Detected in US

BA.2, Omicron’s “cousin” variant, has been detected in the US. It initially appears to be more contagious, but not more dangerous.

A new, highly contagious, variant of COVID-19 has been detected in the US. Called BA.2 and considered to be a “cousin” of Omicron, the variant has been detected in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington state, as well as in at least 40 other continents.

Scientists are calling BA.2 the “stealth” version of Omicron, due to genetic traits that make it more difficult to detect. However, experts are advising against panic, as BA.2, like its cousin Omicron (now called BA.1), is expected to remain mild. There are still many unknowns, including whether BA.2 is able to evade vaccines or cause severe disease.

Since mid-November 2021, countries have uploaded close to 15000 genetic sequences of BA.2 to a global coronavirus data-sharing platform. An estimated 96 of the sequenced cases came from the US.

So far, the BA.2 variant has yet to gain traction in the US. Comparatively, in Denmark, BA.2 made up 45% of all COVID-19 cases, up from 20% 2 weeks earlier. Notably, however, this may be due to Denmark’s exceptional virus genome sequencing initiative.

BA.2 is currently estimated to make up 5% of cases in the United Kingdom. The new variant has also been detected in India, as well as infrequently in other Asian and European countries.

Similar to Omicron, BA.2 has approximately 20 of the same spike protein mutations. If BA.2 is deemed a globally significant “variant of concern,” it could be given its own Greek letter name.

There are some scientists who suspect BA.2 may be just as contagious than Omicron, if not slightly more so, since it is able to compete with its cousin variant.

“Investigations into the characteristics of BA.2, including immune escape properties and virulence, should be prioritized independently (and comparatively) to BA.1,” The World Health Organization (WHO) said.