Scientists in the UK have identified an “invisible” version of the new variant of the coronavirus – the omicron – the Guardian reported on Tuesday. As explained, this version cannot be initially distinguished from other coronavirus variants by PCR testing. The researchers explained that at this point in time, it is not possible to predict whether the new version of the omicron will spread in the same way as the standard version.
Scientists use genome-wide analysis to confirm which coronavirus variant caused the infection, explained in the UK daily The Guardian, but PCR testing can sometimes give a clue. About half of the PCR machines in the UK look for three viral genes, but the omicron, like the alpha variant, tests positive on only two of them. This is because the omicron, like alpha, has a genetic change called a deletion in the spike gene. Detection of this deletion by PCR suggests that it is an omicron variant. The new version, however, does not have this change, thus scientists informally called it the “invisible omicron”.
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The “invisible” version of the omicron
The “invisible” version shares many mutations with the standard omicron, but lacks one particular genetic change that allows the use of PCR-type testing to mark the virus as a possible omicron variant and subject it to full genetic sequencing to confirm this. This version is still detected as a coronavirus by all standard tests, and can be identified as an omicron through genetic sequencing, but catching probable cases through PCR testing greatly accelerated the identification of the omicron variant, explained The Guardian.
The researchers point out that it is too early to predict whether the new version of the omicron will spread in the same way as the standard version, but they say it is genetically distinct and may behave differently.
This version was first spotted among the coronavirus samples shipped in recent days from South Africa, Australia and Canada, but may already be spreading further. Of the seven cases identified so far, none come from the UK. The discovery of a new form of the omicron prompted researchers to divide line B.1.1.529 into a standard omicron, designated BA.1, and a newer variant – BA.2. – There are two lines within the omicron, BA.1 and BA.2, which are quite genetically different. These two lines may behave differently – believes prof. Francois Balloux, director of the Institute of Genetics at University College London.
One of the main unknowns is how the new version was created. While still classified as an omicron, it is so genetically distinct that if it spreads rapidly, it could be considered a worrying variant. And according to the researchers, it would be disturbing to produce two separate versions, BA.1 and BA.2, at a rapid pace from shared mutations, the journal wrote.
New UK Coronavirus Variant
Meanwhile, the British Health Safety Agency (UKHSA) said Tuesday of a further 101 cases of the coronavirus omicron variant, which were confirmed in the UK. In total, 437 have been detected in the UK, 333 in England, 99 in Scotland and five in Wales. On Monday, Health Minister Sajid Javid said in the House of Commons that the new cases are no longer limited to people who have returned from abroad, but that the broadcast is also taking place locally.
Due to the growing number of infections, government members received updated information on the situation on Tuesday morning. “The prime minister said it was too early to draw conclusions about the characteristics of the omicron, but according to preliminary indications, it is easier to transfer than delta,” said a spokesman for Boris Johnson.
He added that it is also too early to say whether the new variant has greater immunity to vaccines and whether it causes more severe disease. The spokesman also said ministers had not discussed whether to introduce a covid “plan B” for winter, which would reintroduce further restrictions. Due to the new variant, the obligation to wear masks in shops and public transport has already been restored, as well as the obligation to perform pre-arrival tests from abroad and PCR tests upon arrival.
“Social omicron infection”
The omicron variant is also spreading to other European countries. “We now have a community-wide infection with the omicron variant,” Anette Lykke Petri, director of the Danish Patient Safety Authority, told reporters. Denmark has so far registered 398 cases of omicron infection.
Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke announced on Tuesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and had been quarantined in his hotel room in Brussels, where he was to meet EU health ministers. Heunicke, 46, wrote on his Facebook account that he was infected despite receiving two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but had “mild symptoms, mostly a sore throat.” “I had to cancel (attend) the ministerial meeting, and now I’m waiting for my immune system to take care of the rest,” wrote the minister.
According to information from his ministry, Heunicke used the Copenhagen metro and regional trains in recent days before coming to Brussels, and on Friday he attended a Christmas dinner at his ministry.
Main photo source: PAP / EPA / NEIL HALL