While our attention has been turned elsewhere, the pandemic that has dominated our lives for the past two years has continued to rage on in the background.
Health officials have warned that a return of some restrictions may be necessary to avoid another wave of the virus and an increase in hospitalisations and deaths. However, governments, including NSW and the Federal Government, are not keen on bringing back health measures any time soon.
“What we’ve seen with these latest permutations of this variant is it doesn’t need to change our settings. We can keep doing what we’re doing,” the Prime Minister said on Saturday, citing business concerns.
Increasing the booster rate, which sits at 65% nationally, is the preferred government strategy, but whether this will be enough to keep cases low is yet to be seen. Heads of government are however trying to push the idea that cases don’t matter and that only the strain on the hospital should be considered.
So, if it’s now down to us to defend against the new variant, how do you know if you’ve got it?
What Are the Symptoms of BA. 2?
BA. 2 or Stealth Omicron can’t be differentiated from other strains with a simple RAT or PCR test, hence the name. This makes getting a genetic sequence the only real way to tell which version of the virus one has or had.
That being said, there are thought to be subtle differences in the symptoms that BA. 2 causes. Aside from all of the usual COVID symptoms, like a dry cough, a scratchy throat, fatigue, and muscle aches, the Stealth variant is thought to cause a few other distinct issues.
A UK study has found that BA. 2 can cause gastro-intestinal issues, including nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain, heartburn, and bloating. This is thought to be because COVID can impact all parts of the body and, while previous strains have focused on the lungs or the throat, BA.2 may be targeting the gut.
These symptoms are thought to occur early in the infection period and, because there may be less virus in the throat and nose, it could be harder to detect with a PCR or RAT test.
Importantly, BA. 2 isn’t thought to cause the loss of smell or taste associated with other COVID variants. This insight is gleaned from UK data showing loss of smell or taste as a less common symptom of current COVID cases, presumably as BA. 2 becomes dominant in the UK.
Can You Get BA. 2 After Omicron?
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that infection from Omicron, or BA. 1, doesn’t leave you with immunity to Stealth Omicron, or BA. 2.
While a UK study found no evidence of reinfection from differing strains of Omicron, a Danish study of 1.8 million people found 47 instances of reinfection from Stealth Omicron after catching Omicron.
The vast majority of these people were unvaccinated, however, and the following infection appeared to be mild as none of them were hospitalised.
The study concluded that while BA.2 is different enough from Omicron to cause reinfection, the chances of catching the two strains is low. They also highlight the importance of vaccination and say that this is likely to offer the greatest protection against initial infection or reinfection.
How Transmissable Is BA. 2?
Stealth Omicron or BA. 2 is about 1.4 times more infectious than BA. 1, according to ex-WHO epidemiologist, Professor Adrian Esterman, chair of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of South Australia.
Esterman tweeted that the “basic reproduction number (R0) for BA. 1 is about 8.2, making R0 for BA. 2 about 12”. The basic reproduction number is the average number of cases that a single case will infect. For comparison, the original COVID strain had an R0 of 2.5, making BA. 2 six times more infectious.
“This makes it pretty close to measles, the most contagious disease we know about,” he said.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Esterman said that it was very likely that all Australians would be at risk of catching BA. 2 this year – particularly as authorities wind back health measures.
“Everyone’s been exposed to Covid-19, full-stop, and unless you’re very careful you will be exposed again this year,” Esterman said.
“With face mask mandates being dropped, social distancing being removed, the chances are even higher. Those things are put in place to dampen down transmissibility, that’s the whole point. When you remove them it’s just increasing transmission”.
Currently, Australia is seeing a surge in cases, with NSW tripling overnight from 10,000 cases on 15 March to 30,000 on 16 March. However, there were an additional 10,000 RAT test results added to the system today, which could account for those numbers.
Tasmania has jumped up to 1,800 cases, up from 1,300 yesterday, Victoria has 9,426, up from 7,400 yesterday, and the ACT has recorded 1,200, up from 786 yesterday.