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By Melina Wallin | Arizona Republic
As much of the country sets aside mask mandates and other pandemic restrictions, another version of the omicron coronavirus variant, known as BA.2, accounts for an increasing percentage of samples sequenced in Arizona.
While scientists aren’t ready to say it’s the dominant strain in the state, they say that the trend appears to be heading in that direction.
The omicron variant of the coronavirus appeared in November and became dominant around the world in just a matter of weeks. But “omicron” is really more like a branch on a family tree, encompassing several genetically related but similarly-behaving subvariants that scientists have labeled BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, and BA.3.
You’re probably most familiar with BA.1, the strain that broke the ceiling on case counts and quickly outpaced the delta variant, including in Arizona. Still, labs here and around the country have been also detecting BA.2 for several weeks now. That’s despite BA.2’s other moniker, “stealth omicron,” which referenced the challenges its mutations posed to testing technology.
BA.2 is not yet causing a rise in cases in Arizona like it is in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, scientists here are keeping a careful watch on the subvariant to see whether it sets off a small spike or even a surge. They’re also waiting to see how BA.2 will square up against natural and vaccine-induced immunity, new treatments like antivirals and other factors in our arsenal of pandemic defenses.
And many are standing by for more clinical data, hoping to better understand the potential long-term effects of the millions of omicron infections we saw this winter. At the same time, they say, the increased use of home-testing kits rather than PCR lab tests means they have less data they can use to keep tabs on which variants are circulating in communities.
Here’s what we know so far.