A sub-variant of the omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus appears to be on the rise in at least 40 countries, according to the World Health Organization.
The “stealth” omicron variant, as some scientists are calling it, can be difficult to identify because it lacks a genetic characteristic that scientists use to identify the original omicron variant.
According to the WHO, omicron, which is known as B.1.1.529, has three subvariants: BA.1, BA.2, and BA.3. As of a few days before Christmas, BA.1 was responsible for more than 99% of the cases the organization sequenced.
Now, the WHO says, BA.2 could be on the rise, competing with BA.1.
The subvariant has been found in increasing numbers in Norway, according to the country’s public health officials. Cases of BA.2 went from seven detections as of Jan. 4 to 611 cases by Jan. 19.
While the original omicron variant, known as BA.1, is considered very contagious by health care officials, the subvariant could be even more contagious, researchers say.
In Denmark, BA.2 now makes up almost half of all omicron cases, health officials there have said.
It is not yet known if BA.2 is more deadly than the original omicron variant, though researchers in Denmark say they have not seen a difference in hospitalizations or deaths.
“Initial analysis shows no differences in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared to BA.1,” according to Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, a government-run infectious disease research center.
Anders Fomsgaard, a researcher at Statens Serum Institut, said scientists are not yet sure why the subvariant seems to be spreading so quickly.
“It may be that it is more resistant to the immunity in the population, which allows it to infect more. We do not know yet,” he told broadcaster TV 2.
The United Kingdom’s Health Security Agency said it is investigating the new variant as a “variant under investigation” because of the increasing number of cases in the country and around the world.
As of Monday morning, a total of 12,842 gene sequences, or samples that were determined to be BA.2, had been uploaded to the GISAID database from around the world. GISAID is an initiative that promotes the sharing of genomic sequencing and other data on influenza and coronaviruses.
Of that number, 67 were reported from the United States.
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