- International health officials have indicated that scientists are tracking a new iteration of the Omicron variant, known as BA.2 — or “stealth” Omicron to some.
- This variant is propelling COVID-19 spread in Europe and Asia, particularly in Denmark and India, where scientists are working to determine how it may uniquely impact immune systems.
- It’s unclear currently if “stealth” Omicron leads to a certain subset of COVID-19 symptoms over others, but top health officials are stressing to keep an eye out for all 11 potential side effects that we’ve been aware of.
As the Omicron variant continues to fuel widespread SARS-CoV-2 sickness here in the United States, a sibling-like version of the highly infectious variant is now causing concern among healthcare providers as it becomes more prevalent across the globe.
According to a new report from officers at the World Health Organization, this new version of the Omicron variant — officially known as BA.2, a further iteration of the same strain, called BA.1 — differs from earlier mutations due to its cellular spike protein structure. Having first been identified in December 2021, this variant has propelled infections (including breakthrough cases) in all corners of the world, up to 49 countries, including the United States.
The sub-variant has quickly earned a moniker — the “stealth” Omicron variant — as officials begin to learn more about its unique characteristics, explains Karen Edwards, M.D., professor and chair of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. Edwards clarifies that it’s nickname isn’t tied to how quickly it spreads, as there isn’t enough data to confirm if BA.2 spreads faster than the original BA.1 just yet.
Data is extremely limited thus far on how this variant works to infect both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people, but CNN reports that leading virologists have indicated that early data suggests “stealth” Omicron isn’t more infectious or deadlier than its earlier counterpart; just possibly more confusing for scientists to classify in a laboratory setting.
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Its moniker comes from the fact that certain lab tests can’t register BA.2 as entirely unique in its genetic structure at first, according to CNN. Otherwise, the variant functions quite similarly to Omicron itself and experts say there isn’t cause for overt panic just yet; a report released this week by the United Kingdom’s Health Security Agency suggests that current vaccines provide similar protection against the “stealth” variant as it does to original Omicron infections. It’s expected that more data will be made available to U.S. healthcare providers soon, as BA.2 accounts for about 50% of new COVID-19 cases in Denmark and has become the dominant strain in India, per CNN. The German-based GISAID Initiative indicates that BA.2 cases in the U.S. have remained at 100 cases in 20 different states as of this week, based on its public data.
Due to its novelty, some Americans may be wondering if this “stealth” version of Omicron may lead to COVID-19 infections that feel worse — understandably so, given how fast Omicron has spread here in the U.S. Read on to learn more about everything you should know about this new COVID-19 variant, including if this mutation has caused a shift in known symptoms associated with SARS-CoV-2 at large.
What are confirmed COVID-19 symptoms associated with Omicron?
Like the original strain of Omicron, BA.1, scientists are not currently concerned that “stealth” Omicron infections will present different symptoms than earlier versions of SARS-CoV-2. Meaning, you shouldn’t expect a brand new symptom to appear if you happen to be impacted by “stealth” Omicron specifically — largely, the side effects of contracting this particular strain have remained the same.
It’s not to say that researchers won’t notice a new trend or common thread between “stealth” Omicron infections that differ from Omicron infections now, Delta-linked infections or those earliest cases of COVID-19 in 2020. Currently, health experts have confirmed that Omicron infections specifically have led to a new common trend of upper respiratory symptoms — issues like sore throats and nausea — over symptoms like shortness of breath or a loss of taste and smell. While all symptoms remain possible for anyone who becomes sick, not all COVID-19 infections are the same, and upper respiratory symptoms have become more prevalent this winter than other potential symptoms that have been noted in years past.
There is a possibility that healthcare providers will uncover a new trend for this particular “stealth” variant in the future — but it remains true that anyone impacted by COVID-19 may be impacted by any one of the following symptoms reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Dr. Edwards adds that it is too early to tell anything about the mortality rate and hospitalization rate around this particular variant, nor if it particularly impacts a certain subset of the population more frequently. While this particular variant is more widespread in Europe, South Asia, South Africa and India at the moment, she expects that U.S. officials may soon learn that BA.2 is more widespread than originally thought in due time.
When do COVID-19 symptoms start with Omicron infections?
It’s no secret that health experts have detected that Omicron-fueled infections may have shorter incubation times compared to earlier strains — but it’s also too soon to tell if “stealth” Omicron has an even more abridged incubation period. According to current CDC guidance, COVID-19 symptoms may manifest in sick individuals anywhere from two to 14 days after someone has been exposed to SARS-CoV-2.
Despite it’s foreboding name, experts are adamant that “stealth” Omicron infections can still be identified on both clinical PCR COVID-19 tests as well as home-based rapid result tests. If you’re experiencing unexplained symptoms detailed on the list above in any sequence, combination or severity, your best bet is to seek out a COVID-19 test to ensure you are healthy.
Can you become infected with Omicron COVID-19 variants more than once?
If you’ve already fallen ill with COVID-19 recently and learned you were impacted by Omicron specifically, you may be wondering if “stealth” Omicron could cause you to become sick once more. The data may be limited here, as Dr. Edwards confirms, but the reality is that experts are largely unsure if certain variants can cause reinfection more than once.
What we do know is that it is possible for someone to get COVID-19 twice, or for someone who is up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations to experience a breakthrough case. Experts speaking to outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle and Deseret News indicate that the likelihood of someone becoming sick through exposure to any Omicron variant after experiencing an Omicron infection earlier this winter is very unlikely, but not out of the question.
“Compared to [strains] that came before [Omicron], people who had COVID-19 in the past were five times as likely to get infected again, and so… that’s one of the questions that people are still looking at,” Allison Arwady, M.D., Chicago’s Department of Public Health Commissioner, told NBC5 Chicago recently. “While we’re waiting for data to come in, I would expect that somebody who has just had, if you knew that it was Omicron, you would probably be unlikely to get Omicron again for the next few months based on what we’ve seen previously. But I’m less confident in that statement than I would have been for prior variants, given what we’ve seen.”
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