The highly contagious omicron variant has set pandemic infection records in Florida and the United States and continues to spread in many states and the rest of the world.
But coming quickly behind there is a subvariant that early studies show is even more contagious, can cause more breakthrough infections in vaccinees — and now it’s in Florida.
The COVID-19 subvariant is designated as BA.2 but is better known by its “stealth” moniker omicron. It was first detected in Denmark in December and has already overtaken the original omicron strain to become the dominant variant there. It was identified in at least 57 countries and 29 US states on Monday, according to GISAID, a public database used by scientists to track the spread of infectious diseases. Data from around the globe shows the regularly outperforming omicron subvariant.
Now, two cases of the BA.2 subvariant have been identified in Florida in seven days, according to GISAID.
A 69-year-old woman tested positive for BA.2 from a nasal swab sample taken on January 11. The sample was submitted to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing lab and reported positive on January 25.
The other case is a 32-year-old man who was tested on January 16, and this positive test result was reported on Tuesday. No further details on either case were available, including the counties in which they live.
The Florida Department of Health is aware that the subvariant has been detected in the state, department spokesman Jeremy Redfern said.
“You will need to contact the CDC for more information,” Redfern said in an email Tuesday to the Tampa Bay Weather.
Scientists don’t yet know if this will produce more severe symptoms in infected people. The World Health Organization’s COVID response team said in a Tuesday briefing that it does not appear to be more serious than the original omicron strain, according to a Reuters report.
There is positive evidence to suggest the subvariant is similar enough to omicron that vaccines can still protect against severe symptoms of COVID-19, said Seetha Lakshmi, medical director of the Global Emerging Diseases Institute at the Tampa General Hospital and assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
However, the subvariant could delay a return to something approaching “normal,” which experts had predicted could happen in early March based on falling omicron case counts. Stealth omicron may not produce another wave of infection, Lakshmi said, but it could prolong the current wave and sustain high levels of COVID-19 transmission for several weeks.
“It’s expected that it won’t give us as big of a decrease in workload,” she said. But whether it will send more people to hospitals “is something we will have to see”. she said.
The BA.2 subvariant is considered a cousin of omicron, or BA.1, which tore Florida apart and as of last week was still infecting more than 28,000 residents daily, according to state data.
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BA.2 appears in standard COVID-19 tests, but earned its “stealth” nickname because it lacks a particular mutation that allowed researchers to easily distinguish omicron from previous variants using a simple PCR test. Without this key mutation, the BA.2 variant is indistinguishable from previous variants without more complicated laboratory tests, known as genomic sequencing.
A recent study from Denmark indicates that the new variant may be 2-3 times more infectious than the original omicron strain, even among vaccinated and boosted individuals. Unvaccinated people are also more likely to spread the new variant, compared to BA.1. However, those who are vaccinated or boosted are no more likely to spread stealth omicron, compared to its earlier cousin. The study has not been peer reviewed.
BA.2 has a significant number of distinct mutations. These differences mean that people who have been infected with BA.1 may still be at risk of being infected with BA.2, said Anders Fomsgaard, chief medical officer at the Statens Serum Institut in Denmark, in an appearance on 21 january on Danish television.
This means that a previous infection with omicron does not offer as much protection against reinfection as was hoped. This is partly because the body mounts a weaker immune response to the relatively milder omicron infection, study finds released last week.
The researchers found that antibodies produced after infection with omicron do not recognize other variants well, suggesting that they will not offer much protection against a significantly different strain of COVID-19. This article has not been peer reviewed.
Tampa General routinely performs genome sequencing of viruses to keep tabs on diseases spreading in the community. But some countries don’t have the resources to do as much genomic sequencing as wealthier countries, Lakshmi said. This makes it harder for health authorities in those countries to track the variants that are spreading. And each time COVID-19 spreads and replicates around the world, she said, the risk is that more variants emerge.
“The real challenge is a global response,” she said. “We’re connected globally, but we’re not when it comes to a COVID response.”
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Ministry of Health has a website which lists the test sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
United States: The Department of Health and Social Services has a website who can help you find a test site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and older and boosters for eligible recipients are being administered at doctor’s offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow you to book appointments online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your postal code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Immunization Hotline.
Call: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish, and other languages.
Disability Access and Information Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email [email protected]
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OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron has changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest information on how the infectious variant of COVID-19 is affecting masks, vaccines, recalls and quarantine.
CHILDREN AND VACCINES: Do you have questions about your child’s vaccination? Here are some answers.
REMINDER SHOTS: Not sure which COVID reminder to get? This guide will help you.
APPEAL QUESTIONS: Are there any side effects? Why do I need it? Here are the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how older people can stay safe from the virus.
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