Six Truths About the New Omicron BA.2 Variant

New COVID infections in the United States have steadily dropped since January, but new case rates have started to climb again in Asia and Europe in recent weeks. Hospitalizations and new case rates this month are the lowest they’ve been since summer 2021. So why are health experts concerned that this positive trend might reverse itself? U.S. Covid rates have typically trailed United Kingdom rates by about three weeks, where new case rates have more than doubled since February 25th. One of the causes is the new Omicron variant called BA.2. We answer six questions seniors and caregivers in San Diego have about the BA.2 Omicron sub-variant.

As overall Covid rates for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. are declining, there is a troubling new variant making its way across the country. The BA.2 Omicron sub-variant was first reported in America in early January and testing eventually revealed three cases in San Diego from December 26, 2021, and January 2, 2022.  As of the week ending March 19, BA.2 is responsible for more than one-third of all new Covid cases in the U.S. according to CDC reports. San Diego-based genomics firm Helix, which performs testing, believes that 50 to 70 percent of all current U.S. cases are BA.2.

This rapid spread is troubling in the context of national dropped mask mandates and lifted restrictions, especially in the home care solutions environment. The World Health Organization still considers BA.2 a sub-variant of Omicron, and they don’t consider it dangerous enough to assign BA.2 its own Greek letter. It’s officially just ‘Lineage BA.2’ of the Omicron ‘variant of concern,’ even though it’s been found in 83 countries so far, and is 30 percent more transmissible than the original Omicron strain. So, what exactly is BA.2, why should we be concerned, and should we prepare for a new surge in the next couple of months?

What is the BA.2 variant?

CNN Health reports that “BA.2 is related to BA.1, which is the original Omicron subvariant that led to the huge surge in cases over the winter here in the United States and across Europe. BA.1 swept through communities because of how contagious it is. BA.2 appears to be even more contagious than BA.1. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that BA.2 is growing 80% faster than BA.1. Here in the US as well, BA.2 appears to be on its way to overtaking BA.1 to become the dominant variant.”

How is BA.2 different from Omicron (BA.1)?

Healthline.com’s Health News section says that “the BA.2 subvariant differs from BA.1 in some of the mutations, including the spike protein. As of now, the BA.2 subvariant has not shown any major differences in age distribution, vaccination status, breakthroughs, or risk of hospitalization, according to early data.” This variant is also referred to as the ‘stealth variant’, a sinister name that reflects the way it registers on a PCR test but isn’t immediately taggable as Omicron.

How fast is the BA.2 variant spreading in the US?

According to USA Today, “Around the world, infections are largely from the BA.2 version of omicron.” The week ending March 5, 14.2% of U.S. cases were caused by BA.2. Just one week later, through March 12, BA.2 caused 23.1% of cases. And CNN Health says that “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that 35% of new coronavirus cases are due to this subvariant the week ending March 19.” This is roughly a ten percent week over week growth trend.

Are BA.2 Covid symptoms different from those of previous versions of Covid?

According to NBC News, “Symptoms of BA.2 appear to largely mirror those of the original version of the omicron variant: an upper respiratory illness that causes sore throat, cough, congestion, headache and fatigue. Anecdotal reports have suggested that dizziness could be a possible symptom, but they are so far unfounded.”

Is the BA.2 variant more dangerous than Omicron (BA.1)?

CNN Health reports that “The good news is that BA.2 does not seem to cause more severe illness than BA.1. Researchers from the UK and Denmark have found BA.2 causes a level of hospitalization that’s comparable to that of BA.1, which is less likely to result in severe illness than the previously dominant Delta variant.”

Is the BA.2 variant going to cause a return to restrictions and mandates?

NBC News says that, “Infectious disease experts remain steadfast in their prediction that the subvariant is unlikely to cause widespread severe illness or crush hospital resources as earlier variants have, even as BA.2 is estimated to be 30 percent more transmissible.” The chief medical officer for the CDC’s Covid-19 response says that BA.2 is unlikely to cause more severe cases or deaths than Omicron, even if infections increase, in part because the Omicron surge infected so many people. (And, Omicron spurred so many others to get vaccinated.) So many of us probably have strong immunity against Omicron’s subvariants because antibodies created during a prior Omicron infection appear to protect against the BA.2 subvariant. Despite BA.2’s rapid spread, it’s still not spreading as quickly as original Omicron did.

So how should people receiving and providing in home care in San Diego prepare to face the possible impact of the rapid spread of BA.2? Consider that in March 2022, national vaccination efforts and the natural immunity former Omicron patients still have mean that many of us have sufficient healthy protective antibodies. BA.2 is still responding to both kinds of existing antibodies as far as doctors know which should ensure that most cases of this new sub-variant will not be severe enough to require hospitalization. Of course, BA.2 may not cause more severe disease than original Omicron (BA.1), but its high contagion rate means that vulnerable people should continue taking safety precautions.