More mutations ahead? Omicron sub-lineage BA.2 variant under investigation in UK

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which monitors data related to the pandemic, said the sub-lineage known as BA.2 shows a low number of cases in the country.

Published: 21st January 2022 08:33 PM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2022 08:33 PM   |  A+A-

Representational Image. (Photo | AP)


LONDON: The UK health authorities on Friday said they will be conducting further analysis into a sub-lineage of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 after designating it a variant under investigation (VUI).

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which monitors data related to the pandemic, said the sub-lineage known as BA.2 shows a low number of cases in the country, with the original Omicron lineage BA.1 still dominant.

A VUI designation is the initial step of investigation before being designated a variant of concern (VOC), which the original Omicron BA.1 currently is.

"The Omicron variant sub-lineage known as BA.2 has been designated as a variant under investigation," UKHSA said.

"The number of BA.2 cases is currently low, with the original Omicron lineage, BA.1, still dominant in the UK and further analyses will now be undertaken. UKHSA are continuing to monitor data on the BA.2 sub-lineage closely," it said.

The sub-lineage was designated in early December last year and as of January 10 this year, 53 sequences of BA.2 had been identified in the UK.

"It is in the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it's to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic goes on," said Dr Meera Chand, UKHSA Incident Director.

"Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant. Case rates remain high throughout the UK and we must remain vigilant and take up vaccinations," she said.

The UKHSA update comes as the UK recorded another 107,364 COVID-19 infections on Thursday, after having dropped below the 100,000 mark in recent days.

The health agency said there is now "high confidence" that the Omicron variant causes low severity of disease in adults.

However, confidence levels for severity indicators for children are low because further analysis is required to compare the risk of hospitalisation between Omicron and Delta, and to assess the clinical nature of illness in children.

"We'll be undertaking further analysis to investigate the small rise in the number of children admitted to hospital but currently coronavirus (COVID-19) poses a very low health risk to children and infants," said Dr Susan Hopkins, UKHSA Chief Medical Advisor.

"Early data shows that young children who are hospitalised experience mild illness and are discharged after short stays in hospital. Getting your booster jab remains the most effective way of protecting yourself and others from infection and severe disease," she said, adding that testing remains an important tool in the fight against COVID.

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a roll back of strict COVID-19 restrictions, as the so-called Plan B measures brought in to tackle Omicron will be allowed to lapse from next Thursday.

People will no longer be directed to work from home where possible or wear face masks as a legal mandate.

Larger venues will not be legally required to demand a COVID vaccine certificate or negative COVID test for entry, but can still choose to do so.

"As we return to Plan A, the House will know that some measures still remain, including those on self-isolation. In particular, it is still a legal requirement for those who have tested positive for COVID to self-isolate," Johnson told the Commons.

"This week the World Health Organisation said that while the global situation remains challenging, the United Kingdom can start to see 'light at the end of the tunnel'," he said.

The devolved regions of the United Kingdom have also eased strict household mixing norms as the pressure on hospitals is brought under control.

Meanwhile, Singapore could witness doubling of Omicron cases every two to three days and report 10,000 to 15,000 or even more of its infections daily, affecting a "significant proportion" of the country's workforce, a senior minister warned on Friday.

Gan Kim Yong, the co-chair of the multi-ministry task force, also cautioned that Singapore will likely see a "significant wave" of COVID-19 soon, with the more infectious Omicron variant now causing at least 70 per cent of daily cases, Channel News Asia reported.

Businesses should put in place "robust" business continuity plans to mitigate disruptions to operations, especially for those in essential services, said Gan, also the Minister of Trade and Industry.

The minister cautioned that Singapore must be prepared for a situation where a "significant proportion" of the workforce may be infected with the coronavirus.

"If we have, for example, 15,000 cases a day, which is very possible, with each one of them out of action for an average of say about five days, we are looking at some 75,000 workers absent due to COVID-19," the channel reported Gan as saying during a press conference.

The number will be much higher if close contacts are included.

"This has been the experience of other countries and we cannot take it lightly. But in reality, the proportion is likely to be higher, perhaps close to 90 per cent or more," he added.

Omicron has clearly dominated over the Delta variant in Singapore.

"Given that the Omicron variant is more infectious, it is likely that we will soon see a significant wave," the report quoted Gan as saying.

Most of the Omicron cases have been "mild", especially among people who are fully vaccinated and even more for those who received their COVID-19 booster shots.

"The percentage of those who needed oxygen supplementation, intensive care or die is far lower than during the Delta wave. This is in line with the experience of other countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom," Gan pointed out.

In a statement, the Ministry of Heath said that given Omicron's lower severity, Singapore should focus its attention on the number of patients in the intensive care unit instead of case numbers.

"Nevertheless, Omicron's higher transmissibility means that we cannot let our guard down, as an uncontrolled rise in overall case numbers could still push hospital and ICU admissions to unmanageable levels," it added.

To prepare for the Omicron wave, the ministry will implement a series of measures, such as suspending visits to hospital wards and residential care homes for the next four weeks.

It has also made plans to optimise healthcare resources and adjust recovery protocols.

Studies by the National Centre of Infectious Diseases (NCID) have shown that although the Omicron variant is more transmissible, infected individuals carry a lower viral load and "generally recover faster", noted Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.

Thus, the isolation period for fully vaccinated individuals and children under 12 years old will be reduced from 10 to seven days, he announced.

On the recommendation of the expert committee on COVID-19 vaccination, Singapore will extend its booster programme to those aged 12 to 17.

Earlier in January, MOH announced that from February 14, those aged 18 and above would have to take a booster shot within 270 days of completing their primary vaccination series to maintain their fully vaccinated status.

For those aged 12 to 17, this deadline will be set for March14, said MOH.

"This will give them sufficient time to receive their booster dose. We urge our young to go for their booster vaccinations as soon as possible, once they are invited to do so five months after their last dose," it added.

Meanwhile, in-person visits to all hospital wards and residential care homes will be suspended for four weeks from January 24 to February 20, said MOH.

This is to "better protect our patients and healthcare workers", particularly in settings with vulnerable people, amid a looming Omicron wave, MOH statement said.

There were 1,001 new cases with the Omicron variant on Thursday, down from the 1,185 cases a day earlier, said the Health Ministry.

Of these, 952 were local cases and 49 were imported.

Separately, the Ministry reported 1,472 Covid-19 cases, 339 of which were imported and one death linked to coronavirus.

As of Thursday, Singapore has recorded a total of 297,549 Covid-19 cases, with 845 deaths.

Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan beginning Friday as the country widens COVID-19 restrictions due to the omicron variant causing cases to surge to new highs in metropolitan areas.

The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last through February 13.

With three other prefectures, Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi, under similar measures since early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one-third, of the country.

While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry on Friday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged 5-11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.

Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring eateries to close early and not serve alcohol, and on urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.

Under the latest measure, most eateries are asked to close by 8 or 9 p.m., while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans.

In Tokyo, certified eateries that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9 p.m. while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.

Restaurants that close at 9 p.m.

and don't serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen ($263) per day in government compensation, while those that close at 8 p.m. get 25,000 yen ($220) per day.

Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.

Mitsuru Saga, the manager of a Japanese-style "izakaya" restaurant in downtown Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite receiving less compensation from the government.

"We cannot make business without serving alcohol," Saga said in an interview with Nippon Television.

"It seems only eateries are targeted for restraints."

After more than two years of repeated restraints and social distancing requests, Japanese are increasingly becoming less cooperative to such measures.

People are back to commuting on packed trains and shopping at crowded stores.

Tokyo's main train station of Shinagawa was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work Friday morning.

Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to ban most foreign entrants when the omicron variant began spreading in other countries.

Japan says it will stick to the stringent border policy through end of February as the country tries to reinforce medical systems and treatment.

The tough border controls have triggered criticism from foreign students and scholars who say the measures are not scientific.

Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on eateries, noting that infections in the three prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two weeks show no signs of slowing.

Tokyo logged 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection Thursday, exceeding the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.

At a Tokyo metropolitan government task force meeting, experts sounded the alarm at the fast-paced upsurge led by omicron.

Norio Ohmagari, Director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center of National Center for Global Health and an advisor to the Tokyo metropolitan government panel, said Tokyo's daily new cases may exceed 18,000 within a week if the increase continues at the current pace.

Though only some of the soaring number of infected people are hospitalized and occupying less than one-third of available hospital beds in the Japanese capital, experts say the rapid upsurge of the cases could quickly overwhelm the medical systems once the infections further spread among the elderly population who are more likely to become seriously ill.

Surging infections have already begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.

The ministry has trimmed the required self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, and to seven days for essential workers if they test negative.

While about 80% of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the rollout of booster shots has been slow and has reached only 1.4 % of the population so far.

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