DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Scientists are closely monitoring a new type of the COVID-19 omicron variant, sometimes referred to as “stealth omicron.”
Duke infectious disease expert Dr. Cameron Wolfe said the subvariant has been found in North Carolina.
The actual name for this version of omicron is BA.2.
Wolfe explained it this way: “Omicron, if you really want to get into the virology, is looking like it’s splitting down into three separate sorts of subfamilies, if you will. They go by the names BA.1, BA.2, and BA.3. Most of what we’ve seen is BA.1.”
The World Health Organization noted that BA.2 is “increasing in many countries.”
In North Carolina, Wolfe said, “We’ve seen a small trickle of this BA.2 or ‘omicron stealth’ appearing amongst the omicron.”
He said it has more mutations than what we now call omicron. It’s sometimes called “stealth” because, while it does register positive on a PCR COVID-19 test, scientists can’t immediately tell it’s the omicron variant.
“It no longer gives you quite the clarity to understand what strain of COVID,” Wolfe said. “That is probably relevant because, actually, at the moment, for the first time, it does impact some of our decision-making as to what treatment we would offer some of the most at-risk individuals.”
There are still a lot of questions about BA.2. RTI epidemiologist Dr. Pia MacDonald posed some of them: “Does the variant move quicker from one person to another? What does it mean about spread?”
MacDonald said evidence coming out of Denmark shows this subvariant may spread even more easily than what is being seen now.
“I think it’s a little bit too early to tell what it’s going to do across different countries, but what they are seeing in Denmark is that it is moving between people very, very quickly,” she said. “It very quickly overtook and is on its way to being the dominant variant.”
While scientists need more time to study the subvariant, Wolfe said so far it doesn’t appear to cause more severe illness. He believes current vaccines should still prevent hospitalization and death.
“There’s no early signal to say this is dramatically different than standard omicron. There’s no early to signal to say this makes folks much more sick,” he said. “Fancy name, but maybe clinically no different.”