INDIANAPOLIS — A new, emerging variant is catching the attention of Indiana health officials.
A subvariant of omicron – called BA.2 – has been detected in several states across the nation and local experts said it is one and a half times more transmissible than omicron.
“Since it’s in Wisconsin, it’s only a matter of time probably before it gets to Indiana,” said Brian Dixon, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health. “We have not yet detected it in Indiana. However, this new variant has a feature about it, which makes it a little bit harder to detect, which is why it’s sort of known as the stealth omicron.”
Dixon explained that the omicron variant has an identifying genetic marker that can be detected during a PCR test.
“You can immediately know whether this is omicron versus some other variants,” said Dixon. “This new mutation does not have that genetic expression. So that means the only way to distinguish BA.2 from Delta and other variants is to run a genomic sequencing test.”
Dixon said genomic sequencing test is not typically run on every positive case. Both the Indiana Department of Health and the CDC only run these genomic sequencing tasks on a fraction of cases by selecting randomized samples.
“[BA.2 is] being seen more in Denmark, England is definitely seeing it, and probably because some of those countries are doing a lot more testing of maybe all – or most – of their samples versus what we do here in the United States,” said Dr. Christopher Doehring, Vice President for Medical Affairs at Franciscan Health of Central Indiana.
Still, early studies show promising results. Dr. Doehring said while BA.2 is more contagious, the new variant does not appear to cause more severe disease and the vaccines are still effective against it.
“We’ve seen omicron peak at very high levels and then in other parts of the world – in other parts of the United States – it’s dropped very rapidly,” said Dr. Doehring. “We’re just starting to see that drop here in Indiana and so the question will be if this new subvariant of omicron sort of stretches out the omicron surge longer than maybe what we would have predicted.”
Dixon said there is no way of knowing how this emerging subvariant could impact Indiana’s case count, but he described two possible scenerios:
“The most likely scenario is what has been described as a long tail of omicron, which means that we’ve hit kind of a plateau if you will,” said Dixon. “Our declines would be relatively slow over a longer period of time, meaning that it could be until late spring really before we see rates dramatically drop.”
The other scenario Dixon described depends on whether the new BA.2 variant could re-infect those who have already recovered from omicron.
“If people who were infected with omicron are not protected against this new variant of omicron, then we could see another spike and that’s what some people are describing as a two-humped camel kind of pattern in our data,” said Dixon.
Both experts agree it is too early to know exactly how or if this subvariant will cause a disruption, but experts said a silver lining is the promising studies already coming out.
“Data that we have out of Denmark, and the UK, and other places that have experienced increases in both [omicron] and BA2 still show that people who are vaccinated are not landing in the hospital,” said Dixon.
“It’s a matter of trying to learn as much as we can as quickly as we can,” said Dr. Doehring. “Vaccination seems to be our best tool at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death. So we strongly encourage folks to get vaccinated or get boosted if they’re eligible.”