The highly transmissible Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – the most common form of which is known as BA.1 – now accounts for nearly all of the coronavirus infections globally, although dramatic surges in Covid cases have already peaked in some countries.
Scientists are now tracking a rise in cases caused by a close cousin known as BA.2, which is starting to outcompete BA.1 in parts of Europe and Asia. The following is what we know so far about the new subvariant:
Globally, BA.1 accounted for 98.8% of sequenced cases submitted to the public virus tracking database GISAID as of Jan. 25. But several countries are reporting recent increases in the subvariant known as BA.2, according to the World Health Organization.
In addition to BA.1 and BA.2, the WHO lists two other subvariants under the Omicron umbrella: BA.1.1.529 and BA.3. All are closely related genetically, but each features mutations that could alter how they behave.
Trevor Bedford, a computational virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has been tracking the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, wrote on Twitter on Friday that BA.2 represents roughly 82% of cases in Denmark, 9% in the UK and 8% in the United States, based on his analysis of sequencing data from the GISAID database and case counts from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
The BA.1 version of Omicron has been somewhat easier to track than prior variants. That is because BA.1 is missing one of three target genes used in a common PCR test. Cases showing this pattern were assumed by default to be caused by BA.1.
BA.2, sometimes known as a “stealth” subvariant, does not have the same missing target gene. Instead, scientists are monitoring it the same way they have prior variants, including Delta, by tracking the number of virus genomes submitted to public databases such as GISAID.
As with other variants, an infection with BA.2 can be detected by coronavirus home tests kits, though they cannot indicate which variant is responsible, experts said.
Some early reports indicate that BA.2 may be even more infectious than the already extremely contagious BA.1, but there is no evidence so far that it is more likely to evade vaccine protection.
Danish health officials estimate that BA.2 may be 1.5 times more transmissible than BA.1, based on preliminary data, though it likely does not cause more severe disease.
In England, a preliminary analysis of contact tracing from Dec. 27, 2021, through Jan. 11, 2022, by the UK Health Security Agency (HSA) suggests that household transmission is higher among contacts of people infected with BA.2 (13.4%) compared with other Omicron cases (10.3%).
The HSA found no evidence of a difference in vaccine effectiveness, according to the January 28 report.
A critical question is whether people who were infected in the BA.1 wave will be protected from BA.2, said Dr Egon Ozer, an infectious disease expert at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
That has been a concern in Denmark, where some places that saw high case counts of BA.1 infections were reporting rising cases of BA.2, Ozer said.
If prior BA.1 infection does not protect against BA.2, “this could be sort of a two-humped camel kind of wave,” Ozer said. “It’s too early to know if that will happen.”
The good news, he said, is that vaccines and boosters still “keep people out of the hospital and keep people from dying.” [AP]
Quebec COVID-19 hospitalizations rising as new variants gaining ground
MONTREAL — Quebec is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by new Omicron subvariants that account for about 75 per cent of infections, the province’s public health director said Wednesday.
Dr. Luc Boileau said the subvariants, such as BA2.12.1, BA.5 and BA.4, appear to be more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily more severe. The rise in cases was “expected,” though it came earlier than authorities had thought, he said, adding that the number of new infections should continue to rise in the coming days or weeks before declining.
Boileau said the province doesn’t plan on reimposing any broad-level public health restrictions, but he recommended that people who are over 65 or medically vulnerable take precautions such as wearing a mask. He was firm in his advice against a new provincewide masking order, insisting that such a measure was not “realistic” or necessary at this point.
“We’re not at all on a path to reimpose population-level measures such as mask-wearing, or other measures that needed to be taken in the last two years,” he said.
“We’re not there, and we’re not heading in that direction with the current variants.”
He said people who are over the age of 60, who are immunocompromised or who have chronic illnesses should seek a second booster shot if they haven’t had one or if their last shot was more than three months ago. As well, he said those who want to wear masks should be “encouraged” to do so, especially in crowded places.
His update came as COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by 34 in the previous 24 hours, after a 113-patient rise the day before. There were 1,260 people in hospital with COVID-19 in Quebec, including 35 in intensive care. Health officials also reported four more deaths associated with the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Don Vinh of the McGill University Health Centre says Quebec is facing a “perfect storm” of factors that include the emergence of new variants, waning immunity from vaccination or previous infection, and the removal of public health restrictions.
The new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, he said in an interview Tuesday, appear to be gaining ground and finding vulnerable people to infect, especially since the mutations seem to be better able to evade immunity compared with previous strains.
“You put the two together, the new variants and waning immunity from either infection, immunization or a hybrid, and what happens is you have a renewed pool of susceptible people with an emerging variant,” he said.
The rise in hospitalizations, he added, comes at a time when the health system is least prepared to handle it.
Hospital workers at “all levels” are overwhelmed, he said, from paramedics and ambulance drivers to ER staff and the community and home care workers who need to be present to care for frail people leaving hospital.
COVID-19 is also putting increased pressure on the system by forcing sick health-care workers to stay home at a time when they’re most needed, he said. “This a catastrophic, systemic failure being unmasked and perhaps even exacerbated by unmitigated community transmission.”
On Wednesday, Boileau said he was concerned with the impact the increase in cases will have on the system, adding that authorities were working with hospitals to readjust services when necessary. He said, however, that he didn’t expect the new rise in cases to get “very, very high” and that the numbers should begin to decline in the next few weeks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
Canada extends COVID-19 border measures until Sept. 30, including ArriveCan app
OTTAWA — The federal government will extend current COVID-19 public health measures for travellers entering Canada, including the use of the ArriveCan app, until at least Sept. 30.
In a release Wednesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada also said it will continue the pause of mandatory random testing for fully vaccinated travellers at all airports until mid-July.
It first announced the pause on June 11 and said in the release that it’s allowing airports to focus on streamlining their operations.
The public health agency said it’s moving forward with plans to relocate COVID-19 testing for air travellers outside of airports to select test provider stores, pharmacies or by virtual appointment.
Mandatory random testing is to continue at land border points of entry with no changes.
The release added that travellers who are not fully vaccinated and don’t have a valid exemption must continue to test on Day 1 and Day 8 of their 14-day quarantine.
“As we move into the next phase of our COVID-19 response, it is important to remember that the pandemic is not over. We must continue to do all that we can to keep ourselves and others safe from the virus,” said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos in a statement.
He also urged people to remain up to date with the recommended vaccinations to ensure they are adequately protected against infection, transmission and severe complications.
“As we have said all along, Canada’s border measures will remain flexible and adaptable, guided by science and prudence.”
All travellers will have to continue to use the ArriveCan app or website to provide their travel information within 72 hours before their arrival in Canada or before boarding a cruise ship destined for the country. The government said 95 per cent of land and air travellers are using the app and it’s taking steps to enhance compliance.
The government also said moving testing outside of airports will allow Canada to adjust to increased traveller volumes while still being able to monitor and quickly respond to new variants of concern or changes to the epidemiological situation.
It said border testing has been essential in helping Canada slow the spread of the virus, as data from the tests are used to understand the current level and trends of importation of COVID-19 into the country.
The testing program also allows for detection and identification of new COVID-19 variants of concern, it said.
Tourism groups and border-community mayors and MPs have called on the government to ease restrictions and scrap the ArriveCan app, saying the measures are limiting cross-border travel.
Transport Minister Randy Boissonnault said the government is deeply invested in growing Canada’s visitor economy.
“From our reputation as a safe travel destination to our world-class attractions and wide-open spaces, Canada has it all and we are ready to welcome back domestic and international tourists, while prioritizing their safety and well-being.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.
The Canadian Press
Western researchers use MRI to learn cause of long-COVID symptoms – BlackburnNews.com
Western researchers use MRI to learn cause of long-COVID symptoms
June 29, 2022 7:30am
A study led by researchers at Western University has revealed the cause of long-COVID symptoms.
New data published by Western professor Grace Parraga and the LIVECOVIDFREE study, based out of five centres in Ontario, is the largest MRI study of patients with long-COVID. The term long-COVID refers to symptoms of brain fog, breathlessness, fatigue and feeling limited while doing everyday things, often lasting weeks and months post-infection.
This is the first study to show a potential cause of long-COVID, which has helped physicians in the study target treatment for the patients.
“I think it is always a conundrum when someone has symptoms, but you can’t identify the problem,” said Parraga, a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Lung Imaging to Transform Outcomes at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. “If you can’t identify the problem, you can’t identify solutions.”
By using MRI imaging with inhaled xenon gas, researchers have identified that the symptoms are caused by microscopic abnormalities that affect how oxygen is exchanged from the lungs to the red blood cells.
Researchers used the technology to watch the function of the 300-500 million tiny alveolar sacs, which are about 1/5 of a millimetre in diameter and responsible for bringing oxygen to the blood.
“What we saw on the MRI was that the transition of the oxygen into the red blood cells was depressed in these symptomatic patients who had had COVID-19, compared to healthy volunteers,” Parraga said.
Further CT scans pointed to ‘abnormal trimming’ of the vascular tree, which indicated an impact on the tiny blood vessels that deliver red blood cells to the alveoli to be oxygenated.
Parraga said the study showed no difference in severity between patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 and those who recovered without hospitalization. She said this is an important finding as the latest wave of COVID-19 has affected many people who did not receive hospital-based care.
To conduct the study, researchers recruited patients suspected to be suffering from long-COVID from London Health Sciences Centre’s Urgent COVID-19 Care Clinic and St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Post-Acute COVID-19 Program. Some participants experienced persistent shortness of breath more than six weeks post-infection, while others were still symptomatic after 35 weeks.
One of the participants is Alex Kopacz, a London-native and Canadian Olympic bobsleigh gold-medalist, who called his experience with COVID-19 “harrowing” and believed the virus would not affect him long-term as he is a young athlete.
“I was on oxygen for almost two months after COVID, and it took me almost three months to get to a place where I could go for a walk without gasping for air,” Kopacz said. “The take home message for me is that we have to remember that this virus can have very serious long-term consequences, which are not trivial.”
Researchers are now conducting a one-year follow-up to better understand these results.
The study was done in collaboration with researchers outside of London at Lakehead University, McMaster University, Toronto Metropolitan University and Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.
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