02.03.2024

New Covid variant BA.6 is ‘probably’ already in the US

A new Covid variant that has prompted calls for face masks to return is ‘probably’ already in the US, experts have told DailyMail.com. The mutant strain — known as BA.6 — has only officially been detected in Israel and Denmark, but several scientists said it will start showing up in tests in America ‘very soon’.

Routine swabbing is no longer being done in the US and only a fraction of positive tests are sent away for analysis to see the Covid strain behind the case, meaning it can take weeks before new strains are detected.

Dr Thomas Moore, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Kansas, told DailyMail.com: ‘I’m sure it is already here. If it hasn’t already made it here, it probably will very soon.’

The mutant virus, which is a spinoff of the Omicron strain, has sparked concern among some scientists because of its high number of mutations in the spike protein, the piece of the virus that vaccines were designed to target.

The variant may make shots less effective if it has evolved to look different enough from its ancestor — though most experts argue no new strain will completely escape immunity from vaccines and prior infection.

Several scientists have warned that the Covid variant, known in some circles as BA.6, was already in the United States

Several scientists have warned that the Covid variant, known in some circles as BA.6, was already in the United States

However, there is no data yet on whether the strain is more likely to cause hospitalizations or deaths than previous variants.

Almost everyone now has a level of immunity against Covid, and the virus has been evolving to become more infectious but less deadly, reducing the risk of another wave like those seen in the early phase of the pandemic.

Dr Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia in the UK, told this website: ‘If it is an infection that is going to outcompete others, then it probably is in the US — and if it isn’t now, then it probably very soon will be.’

Dr Raj Rajnarayanan, from the New York Institute of Technology, added: ‘It hasn’t been identified yet, but if it’s not here now, it will be here soon!’

And Dr Aaron Glatt, an epidemiologist from Mount Sinai in New York, said that it was ‘always possible’ that the variant had already arrived in the US.

Some UK scientists — known for making gloomy predictions earlier in the pandemic — are so concerned they have advised people to mask up again.

But the experts who spoke to DailyMail.com were more cautious.

They agreed that the new variant was unlikely to completely undo years of coronavirus immunity built up during the pandemic.

They said it would take several weeks and at least 50 confirmed cases before researchers can predict how infectious or deadly BA.6 is.

Concerns were raised over the new strain because it carries 30 new mutations, which may make it better able to dodge current immunity.

Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, a doctor from the University of Oxford, warned upon viewing the variant that ‘it looks like it’s once again time to MASK UP’.

The professor, who is also a member of the UK’s Independent SAGE, a group of academics that called for the UK government to adopt an Australian-style Covid elimination strategy early on in the pandemic, acknowledged that she understood ‘little of the detail’, however.

She has been campaigning for people to keep wearing masks since the Covid pandemic began. On August 4, before news of the new variant broke, she retweeted a tweet reading: ‘Open the window, wear a mask, get a HEPA filter.’

The above shows hospitalizations in the US. These have risen by 14 percent over the last week and are up 60 percent from the record low recorded last month

The above shows hospitalizations in the US. These have risen by 14 percent over the last week and are up 60 percent from the record low recorded last month

Covid deaths, however, continue to decline - although they take longer to start rising than hospitalizations

Covid deaths, however, continue to decline — although they take longer to start rising than hospitalizations

In a tweet, Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary healthcare expert at the University of Oxford, wrote: 'My various science WhatsApp groups are buzzing. Genetic lineage clips and diagrams flying back and forth.' The professor, who is also a member of the group Independent SAGE added: 'I understand little of the detail but it looks like it's once again time to MASK UP'

In a tweet, Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary healthcare expert at the University of Oxford, wrote: ‘My various science WhatsApp groups are buzzing. Genetic lineage clips and diagrams flying back and forth.’ The professor, who is also a member of the group Independent SAGE added: ‘I understand little of the detail but it looks like it’s once again time to MASK UP’

Meanwhile, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent SAGE, said: ‘To everyone else — very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in 2 countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’

It is ‘potentially more able to cause a big wave’, she added.

The strain was originally highlighted by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’.

He wrote: ‘Two more sequences of this 2nd-generation BA.2 lineage just showed up in Denmark.

‘This is the real deal. There are slight differences between the three sequences, but they are nearly identical.’

Scientists are concerned by the mutations to its spike protein because these make antibodies — virus-fighting proteins — less able to bind to them and prevent infection.

A higher number of mutations means current immunity is less effective, raising the risk that the virus can gain a foothold.

Scientists point out, however, that there are other sections of the immune system — such as T-cells — that will still be able to detect and fight off the virus.

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