'More contagious' Omicron subvariant detected in Australia

A subvariant of the Omicron Covid variant has been detected in Australia, but experts are saying not to panic just yet.

The Australian Department of Health confirmed on Friday “a very low number” of cases of the new “stealth” sub-variant has been detected in most Australian states, three in NSW.

The subvariant is believed to be more transmissible than previous strains, becoming the dominant variant in Denmark in just a fortnight, along with South Africa – the original epicenter of Omicron.

People walking in street during winter in Europe wearing masks as the Omicron strain spreads.
The Omicron subvariant has become the dominant strain in Denmark. Source: AP

“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,” a spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia in a statement.

“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.”

NSW Health confirmed there have been three recent cases of Covid-19 with the BA.2 Omicron variant identified in the state.

"NSW Health continues to closely monitor the evolving situation with Covid-19," a spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.

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More contiguous but not necessarily more severe

The BA.2 subvariant of Omicron —which is dominant in Denmark —appears more contagious than the more common BA.1 variant.

However, Melbourne University clinical epidemiologist Nancy Baxter told the Today Show on Thursday that although it may be more contagious than Omicron, the subvariant may not be more severe.

“They call it the ‘son of Omicron’, but it’s more of a cousin – it’s a variant related to Omicron," she said.

"It is spreading. We are particularly seeing it in Denmark. We don’t know if it’s going to be a problem yet."

Scientists still investigating subvariant

The World Health Organisation hasn't yet designated BA.2 to a variant of concern, with scientists still working to understand whether it is different from the original Omicron strain in terms of contagiousness and severity.

Denmark's Statens Serum Institut, part of its ministry of health said hospitalisations appear to show no difference for the two Omicron lineages but that "analyses regarding infectiousness and vaccine efficiency etc. are ongoing".

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"It is expected that vaccines also have an effect against severe illness upon BA.2 infection," it added.

Epidemiologist Eric Fiegl-Ding tweeted data showing the sudden dominance of BA.2 in Gauteng, South Africa.

"Not a good signal," he wrote. "Somehow in the original epicenter of #Omicron, #BA2 subvariant has suddenly become dominant ~58% now, displacing old BA1 strain. Same thing happened in Denmark where BA2 is now over 65% dominant."

UK virologist Tom Peacock tweeted that the latest variant doesn't mean the vaccinations aren't effective and won't necessarily cause another wave.

"We just don't have solid data yet - we can make some educated guesses which *may* turn out to be correct but the coming weeks should make everything a lot clearer," he tweeted.

“Several countries are near, or even past the peak of BA.1 waves. I would be very surprised if BA.2 caused a second wave at this point. Even with slightly higher transmissibility this absolutely is not a Delta-Omicron change and instead is likely to be slower and more subtle."

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