The SARS-CoV-2 virus. Image courtesy of the World Health Organization, 2022. The omicron variant emerged around Thanksgiving 2021.

Since the pandemic’s start, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has infected 392 million people and caused 5.7 million deaths worldwide. The highly transmissible omicron variant, first discovered in November 2021, accounts for nearly all active coronavirus infections globally.

Recently, headlines have appeared around a new and more powerful subvariant to omicron. The subvariant, also known as the “stealth variant,” has been identified in 69 countries, including the United States. This blog explains what you need to know about the new variant.

First, why do these variants keep popping up?

The original omicron variant, also known to scientists as BA.1, has 53 mutations apart from the initial coronavirus strain discovered in Wuhan in 2019. Mutations within a virus are normal and expected over time as viruses replicate within a host. Within a few weeks of its finding, scientists discovered that the umbrella omicron BA.1 strain also had three other sub-strain descendants: BA.1.1529, BA.3, and BA.2, otherwise known as the “stealth variant.” Though all three subvariants have additional mutations from BA.1, BA.2 appears to have the most at 20.

None of the 20 mutations are enough to make BA.2 show up differently than BA.1 on a PCR test. Because of this, it is difficult to know when someone is infected with BA.2 as opposed to BA.1. Hence the nickname “stealth variant.” Identifying the stealth variant requires more extensive genetic sequencing to track. Because this process is expensive and impractical for every suspected case of COVID-19, this strain could be spreading undetected.

Virus mutation example. Image courtesy of Pfizer, 2022. The Omicron variant has 50 mutations from the original variant.

Should we panic? What does VIGILINT recommend?

Fortunately, the data released so far shows that vaccines are helping prevent transmission from this subvariant, but it does appear to spread very quickly. As mentioned, according to a report from the World Health Organization released last week, the new stealth variant is already circulating in at least 69 countries, including the United States. The transmission rate is because it appears to be at least 1.5 times more contagious than the original form of omicron.

Despite this, there is no need to panic. The good news is that so far, the stealth variant doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease, and vaccines are just as effective against it.  Additionally, in the United States, it is estimated that the stealth variant only makes up about 8% of overall COVID-19 cases right now. However, scientists warn that another spike in COVID-19 cases could occur since the stealth strain is more contagious.

VIGILINT recommends that families get their vaccinations for COVID-19. Vaccinations are the best safeguard against the disease and can help to contain the disease in the community at large. Additionally, VIGILINT recommends individuals follow all local guidelines. This includes masking up when in large crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.