The New ‘Stealth Omicron’

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Omicron variant
Source: Freepik

Scientists have identified a new stealth lineage of the Omicron variant with the ability to evade PCR tests.

Since its discovery last month, the Omicron variant has managed to cause a whole lot of panic around the world. The heavily mutated strain was found to have a deletion of the S gene, one of the three gene markers used by testing kits. As a result, researchers rely on a finding of ‘S gene target failure’ on PCR tests for identification of Omicron infections. However, a new sublineage of the variant has now emerged. Labelled the stealth Omicron, the variant possesses the ability to escape PCR tests; thus, making its identification more difficult.

The stealth version of Omicron lacks the S gene deletion which makes it harder to differentiate it from other variants. Its discovery has led researchers to split the strain in two. The original Omicron variant is called BA.1 and the newer variant is now BA.2.

There are two lineages within Omicron, BA.1 and BA.2, that are quite differentiated genetically.

Professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute

Don’t Panic Just Yet

According to The Guardian, a total of seven cases of BA.2 have occurred across the world. The cases appeared in Canada, South Africa, and Australia. However, since it evades routine PCR tests, there are likely more cases of the new variant.  

Despite the lineage’s stealth-ness, scientists do not believe it is a cause for panic just yet. The routine PCR test can still pick up infections with the strain; however, it can’t differentiate the strain from others. Therefore, researchers will now need to conduct detailed genetic sequencing to identify the stealth Omicron.

You can still detect it by PCR, but can’t tell it apart from the dominant Delta strain.

Rob Knight, University of California, San Diego

Although the emergence of stealth Omicron is worrying, recent data showing the effectiveness of vaccine boosters against Omicron is a promising sign. The World Health Organization has continuously called for an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations, especially in low-income countries. The health body believes the implementation of protection measures such as masking and social distancing, along with vaccines, can help reduce the emergence of further variants.

Source: The Guardian

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