COVID-19 rates are slowly starting to rise in D.C., prompting health officials to use better ways in tracking COVID cases. (Courtesy Photo)

By Alexis Taylor,
AFRO News Editor

The BA.2 variant of coronavirus is doing exactly what researchers predicted it would. 

After lab tests and real-world surveillance from the onslaught of cases in the United Kingdom, doctors in America are now seeing an uptick of what is being called the “stealth omicron” variant.

Scientists reported last month that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus (BA.1) known to cause COVID-19 has created a subvariant (BA.2) that is even more contagious.

The information was disclosed in a repository for research papers. The company, bioRxiv, pre-prints research “not peer-reviewed, edited, or typeset before being posted online.” 

Findings released by bioRxiv last month stated that “as of February 2022, another variant of Omicron, the BA.2 lineage” had been “detected in multiple countries such as Denmark and UK.” Japanese researchers found that the subvariant, BA.2, has begun “outcompeting BA.1, suggesting that BA.2 is more transmissible than BA.1.”

The study was completed with support from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) and was pulled together by researchers and scientists from The Genotype to Phenotype Japan (G2P-Japan) Consortium, The University of Tokyo, Hiroshima University, the Japan Science and Technology Agency and a host of other institutions.

In the report, researchers expressed concern because the “effective reproduction number of BA.2 is 1.4-fold higher than that of BA.1.”

Scientists studied the BA.2 subvariant by looking at the viral load present in the lungs of infected hamsters. The findings “suggest that BA.2 is more rapidly and efficiently spread in the lung tissues than BA.1.”

They also studied how cells in a test tube react when coronavirus strains are introduced.

Antibody therapies, such as Casirivimab and Imdevimab, “were found to be “almost completely resistant.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared emergency use of Casirivimab and Imdevimab in 2020 as an intravenous combination to stave off COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Research shows that the genetic makeup of the virus is different than that of the Omicron variant that initially emerged. 

“Based on our findings, we propose that BA.2 should be recognized as a unique variant of concern, and this SARS-CoV-2 variant should be monitored in-depth,” said scientists who completed the study.

The report stated plainly that “BA.2 should be given a letter of the Greek alphabet and be distinguished from BA.1, a commonly recognized Omicron variant.”

Another pre-printed study, released on the medRxiv website, found that BA.2 increased the risk of infection “for unvaccinated individuals, fully vaccinated individuals and booster-vaccinated individuals, compared to BA.1.”

Data from over 8,000 Danish households were studied and researchers found that the BA.2 subvariant was able to “reduce the protective effect of vaccination against infection,” but fully vaccinated and boosted persons were less likely to pass the virus to another host if they had a breakthrough infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the BA.2 variant made up roughly two percent of cases in the United States by the end of the second week of February. Exactly one month later, reports from the week ending on March 12 report that the BA.2 variant makes up roughly 23 percent of cases.

During the week ending on Feb. 12, the New York State Department of Health reported that just under four percent of their infected population had the BA.2 variant. By March 12, the BA.2 variant was 39 percent of all cases. 

“This virus is continuing to evolve because we’re letting it run through people,” said Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Stuart Ray. “If we take more precautions, it affects fewer people and it gets less of a chance to evolve. As long as we’re letting it spread and evolve- it’s going to keep on changing. And there’s a chance that a new variant may arise.”

Ray said the BA.2 virus doesn’t appear to be more fatal than its cousin variant BA.1, but that doesn’t mean future variants will continue to be present with mild symptoms.

“Right now, the management is pretty much the same. We need to use precautions to the extent that we can. The same lessons apply-we ought to be thinking about wearing masks,” said Ray. “If somebody in the household is particularly vulnerable, or if the rates of COVID are high in our neighborhood or our community, wearing masks really does help prevent the spread.”

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Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer