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A strain of Omicron that is even more contagious than the original variant has been detected in Australia, authorities have confirmed.
The new BA.2 subvariant has swept across Europe and already makes up 45 per cent of all cases in Denmark.
So far the ‘stealth’ variant doesn’t appear to be more dangerous.
However scientists fear it could also be even harder to track than previous strains as it can only be confirmed through lab analysis rather than a PCR test.
In a statement, a Health Department spokeswoman said: ‘Most states and territories in Australia have detected a very low number of the Omicron sub-variant BA.2 in respiratory samples submitted for testing.
‘The early detection of BA.2 in Australia is a testament to the success of Australia’s genomic sequencing strategy
‘As with all variants, this will continue to be closely monitored.’
Pedestrians wearing masks walk in front of the Sydney Opera House at Circular Quay on Tuesday. The new BA.2 subvariant of Omicron that has swept across Europe has now been detected in Australia
Two genetically distinct sublineages of B.1.1.529 have been defined – BA.1 and BA.2
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Nancy Baxter said on Thursday that initial data showed BA.2 could be even more infectious than its more common BA.1 predecessor.
‘There is a variant they call the ‘son of Omicron’,’ she told a clearly worried Today show host Karl Stefanovic. ‘It’s more of a cousin, it’s a variant related to Omicron.’
She said it was unclear if BA.2 would prolong the latest wave of Omicron cases or whether it would even land on Australian shores.
‘It looks like, if people can believe it, it could be more contagious than Omicron,’ she said.
‘So if it gets here, it may extend our waves and they may take a lot longer to get out of. But we don’t know enough yet, so stay tuned.’
‘That is bad news, for us to hear that again,’ Stefanovic replied. And now the sub-variant has arrived.
‘There is a variant they call the ‘son of Omicron’,’ University of Melbourne health expert Professor Nancy Baxter (right) told a clearly worried Karl Stefanovic on Thursday
The above graph shows daily Covid cases per million people in Denmark (red) and the UK (green). It reveals Denmark, where BA.2 makes up 45 per cent of cases, has seen a much bigger spike in cases
Pictured are motorists being tested at a pop-up Covid clinic in Melbourne’s north on Wednesday
Pictured above are all the countries where BA.2 has been spotted. Cases are growing in Denmark, Germany and the UK
The BA.1 lineage of Omicron accounts for 98 per cent of all cases globally but in Denmark has been pushed aside by BA.2, which became the dominant strain in the second week of January.
The United Kingdom Health Security Agency has designated BA.2 a variant under investigation, saying it could have a growth advantage.
Preliminary calculations suggest BA.2 could be 1.5 times more infectious than BA.1, Denmark’s top infectious disease authority Statens Serum Institute (SSI) said in a note on Wednesday.
However, an initial analysis by the institute showed no difference in the risk of hospitalisation for BA.2 compared to BA.1.
‘There is some indication that it is more contagious, especially for the unvaccinated, but that it can also infect people who have been vaccinated to a greater extent,’ SSI’s technical director Tyra Grove Krause said at the briefing.
This could mean the peak of Denmark’s epidemic will extend a bit further into February than previously forecast, Krause said.
BA.2 cases have also been registered in the UK, Sweden and Norway.
Customers wear face masks in a Melbourne store. ‘Most states and territories in Australia have detected a very low number of the Omicron sub-variant BA.2 in respiratory samples submitted for testing,’ the Federal health department has confirmed
What do we know about BA.2? Should we be concerned?
What is BA.2?
It is an off-shoot of the Omicron lineage.
It carries all the mutations of its parent, but also has a change that makes it harder to detect using PCR tests.
Omicron’s outbreak has been easy to track because it has an S gene drop out, unlike Delta, meaning it easily shows up on PCR tests.
But this is not the case with BA.2.
Is it more dangerous?
Early analysis suggests this sub-variant is slightly more transmissible than Omicron.
It is already the dominant strain in parts of India and the Philippines, scientists say, with cases now rising in the UK, Germany and Denmark.
But there is no evidence to suggest it is more likely to cause serious disease.
Should I be concerned?
Dr Tom Peacock, one of the first scientists to warn the world about Omicron, says there is no reason to be overly concerned.
The Imperial College London expert said he thinks the variant will not have a ‘substantial impact’ on the current wave.
Professor Francois Ballous, a geneticist at Imperial College London, says people not obsessed with Covid should treat it as the same disease as Omicron.