WHO tracking 4 omicron sub-variants, says preventing all COVID transmissions 'not the goal'

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World Health Organization (WHO) official Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said earlier this week that the agency is tracking four omicron sub-variants, including BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2 and BA.3.

The infectious disease epidemiologist explained in a video clip she tweeted on Thursday that the agency is “watching [the] virus evolve in real-time,” tracking proportions of the sub-variants.

“Now, we already know that omicron has a growth advantage; it’s more transmissible compared to other variants of concern and also has properties of immune escape,” she said. “But, we know some of the sub-lineages, BA.2, has a growth advantage even over BA.1.” 

Van Kerkhove said that means that as the virus continues to circulate, there will be an increase in BA.2 cases.

“For … everybody [who is] out there watching this, what is important for you to know is that this virus continues to be dangerous. This virus transmits very efficiently between people, but there’s a lot that you can do,” she said. 

The WHO is working to increase vaccination coverage in all countries and do everything the agency can to support the reduction in transmission. 

“We will not be able to prevent all transmissions. That’s not the goal. To prevent all infection and all transmission, that’s not attainable at this point. But, we need to drive transmission down,” Van Kerkhove continued. “Because, if we don’t, we will not only see more cases, more hospitalizations, more deaths, we will see more people suffering from post-COVID condition – long COVID – and we will see more opportunities for variants to emerge.”

Additionally, she emphasized that there’s no indication of a difference in the severity of infections caused by either sub-variant – though more research is being conducted.

BA.1 is currently the dominant version of omicron worldwide, but the WHO has warned that BA.2 – which differs from BA.1 in some mutations, including in the spike protein – is increasing in many countries. 

“Investigations into the characteristics of BA.2, including immune escape properties and virulence, should be prioritized independently (and comparatively) to BA.1,” the agency wrote on its website.

Most states in the U.S. have reported the presence of the sub-variant, which Van Kerkhove said has already been deemed a variant of concern.

“We don’t know. We haven’t had time,” he said. 

The leader of the WHO issued a warning Wednesday – as leaders around the country loosen or drop mask restrictions – that COVID-19 “isn’t through with us.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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