Two new Omicron sub-variants are spreading quickly in New York state

A man getting a Covid-19 test at a pop-up site in New York on April 11, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Two new versions of Omicron, the coronavirus variant that has swept through the world in the past few months, are circulating in New York state and may be responsible for rising infections in the region over the past few weeks, state health officials said on Wednesday (April 13).

The appearance of these variants, both of which evolved from sub-variant BA.2, may explain why New York has been the national hot spot the past few weeks, the officials said. So far, the new versions do not appear to cause more severe disease than previous variants, the officials said.

The two new versions have a growth advantage of about 25 per cent over BA.2, which until now was the most contagious version of the coronavirus. But it is unclear whether they spread more quickly because of greater contagiousness or an improved ability to sidestep the body's immune defences.

One of the new sub-variants has a mutation that has been shown to help dodge immunity.

"It's just a reminder that we're not out of the woods with regard to this virus, and people should continue to take precautions and to get fully vaccinated if they haven't completed their course," said Dr Kirsten St George, a virus expert for the state who led the work.

In March, the sub-variants - called BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 - accounted for more than 70 per cent of new cases in central New York state, a figure that has risen above 90 per cent. The sub-variants comprise one in five cases in the Finger Lakes region.

The sub-variants have been detected in more than 40 other countries and in more than 30 states across the United States, Dr St George said.

Both new forms of the virus evolved from BA.2, which accounts for nearly 81 per cent of coronavirus infections in New York. A previous version of Omicron, BA.1, sent infections soaring over the winter to unprecedented highs.

New York State Department of Health officials have been tracking the spread of variants since late 2020, and significantly stepped up those efforts last year. But with the rise of rapid testing at home, the state may be sequencing fewer than 5 per cent of new infections, Dr St George said.

The number of cases so far may seem to be insignificant compared with the steep Omicron peak of the winter, but "we're essentially back at levels of case rates back to the Delta wave", said Dr Eli Rosenberg, deputy director for science at the New York State Department of Health.

"This would have been a very significant wave already by last year's standards," he said.

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