Australia detects new Covid variants dominating outbreaks in South Africa, US

Experts are warning the world of new Covid subvariants that are causing a surge in cases overseas. And they’ve now been detected in Australia.

Since Omicron came on the scene late last year, it has produced several subvariants.

While many Australians have “switched off” their Covid care factor, experts are warning the virus is changing and it matters.

The BA.2.12.1 (a sub-lineage of BA.2) is gaining speed in the US and is proving more transmissible.

The BA. 4 and BA. 5 could be fuelling a possible fifth wave in South Africa, but Australian authorities say it is too early to determine if these Omicron variants are more transmissible.

Neither the BA.2.12.1, BA.4 or BA.5 have been determined to cause more severe disease, but this doesn’t mean they are not a concern.

Australia is watching these overseas outbreaks “very closely”.

‘This is real’: BA. 4 and BA. 5

On Monday night, South Australian health authorities revealed one case of the BA.4 and one case of the BA.5 Omicron variant had been identified in international travellers.

It comes after epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman tweeted on Friday that BA.4 had been identified in a traveller returning from South Africa to NSW.

In South Africa – where Omicron was first identified last November and quickly spread globally – Covid cases are surging again and hospitalisations have increased. The spike is linked to BA.4 And BA.5.

“Increasing case numbers will inevitably result in increasing hospitalisations and more people with long-Covid. This is real and happening now,” Professor Esterman, of the University of South Australia, wrote.

While BA.2 is dominant in the US and BA.2.12.1 is gaining speed, BA.4 And BA.5 are also circulating at low levels.

Epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, who is chief of the Covid task force at the World Health Network, told The New York Timesthat whatever the dominant variant, “the lesson here is stopping transmission is the most important”.

Dr Eric Feigl-Ding took to Twitter on Tuesday to further voice his concern.

“Many who follow me know that I’ve been warning about #BA4 and #BA5 for many, many weeks. People tried to dismiss the rise then. But now the folks who minimised and dismissed these variants are no longer dismissive and now worried too,” he wrote.

Dr Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatics scientist in South Africa, told The New York Times that emerging data showed in unvaccinated people, BA.4 and BA.5 evades protection produced from an infection with the original Omicron variant.

On Twitter, he said that a whole new variant (rather than these lineages we’re seeing of Omicron) may not be needed to cause a new wave of infection.

“We are seeing this with BA.4 and 5 in South Africa and with BA.2.12.1 on the east coast of the USA,” he wrote.

“We are all tired of this virus, but he may not be tired of us.”

‘More transmissible’: BA. 2.12.1

On Friday, Victorian health authorities revealed they were monitoring BA.2.12.1, after it was detected in a Melbourne wastewater catchment.

Infectious diseases expert Professor Sanjaya Senanayake said on Monday that BA.2.12.1 “was dominating the US landscape” and was proving more transmissible.

“It does seem to be about 25 per cent more transmissible than BA.2, which is about 30 per cent more transmissible than BA.1,” he told Today.

“But people don’t seem to be getting any sicker than with the earlier Omicron variants.”

Professor Senanayake explained that at the beginning of Covid, health teams were concerned about having enough ICU beds and ventilators, but the challenge now was being “stuck with a steady trickle” of Covid patients in hospitals for the “foreseeable future”.

“It means resources, doctors, nurses and ward space will have to continue to be dedicated to that so that is going to be the real struggle here,” he said.

In mid-April, Victorian health authorities had reported the detection of another subvariant in a different wastewater catchment, which they said was either BA.4 or BA.5.

However, on announcing the detection of BA.2.12.1 on Friday, the department of health added there had been no further wastewater detections of the BA.4 or BA.5 strain in Victoria since the first.

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