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New Omicron variant 'more contagious' than version sweeping globe

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A new subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant, which has led to a record 21 million infections being recorded in the past seven days, appears more contagious than the more common BA.1 sub-lineage, European health officials have revealed.

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“There is no evidence that the BA.2 variant causes more disease but it must be more contagious,” Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke says.

The BA.1 lineage currently accounts for 98 per cent of all cases globally but in Denmark has been pushed aside by BA.2, which became the dominant strain in the second week of January.

The World Health Organisation says there were 21 million new coronavirus cases reported globally last week, the highest weekly number of Covid-19 cases recorded since the pandemic began.

The number of deaths was largely unchanged, at more than 50,000.

In its weekly assessment of the pandemic, issued late on Tuesday, the UN health agency said the number of new coronavirus infections rose by five per cent and the rate of increase appeared to be slowing; only half of regions reported an increase in Covid-19.

Earlier this month, the previous highest number of cases – 9.5 million – was recorded amid a 71 per cent spike from the week before, as the hugely contagious Omicron variant swept the world.

WHO said the biggest increase in cases was seen in the Middle East, with a 39 per cent rise, followed by a 36 per cent jump in Southeast Asia. Deaths increased in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, but fell in other regions.

On Monday, WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned against talk that the pandemic might be entering its “endgame,” warning that conditions remain ripe for new variants to emerge, with vast swathes of unvaccinated people in some countries amid rapid virus transmission.

Still, Tedros said it might be possible for the world to exit the acute phase of the pandemic, if goals like immunising at least 70 per cent of each country’s population are met later this year.

The United Kingdom Health Security Agency has designated BA.2 a variant under investigation, saying it could have a growth advantage.

Preliminary calculations suggest BA.2 could be 1.5 times more infectious than BA.1, Denmark’s top infectious disease authority Statens Serum Institut (SSI) said in a note on Wednesday.

However, an initial analysis by the institute showed no difference in the risk of hospitalisation for BA.2 compared to BA.1.

“There is some indication that it is more contagious, especially for the unvaccinated, but that it can also infect people who have been vaccinated to a greater extent,” SSI’s technical director Tyra Grove Krause said at the briefing.

This could mean the peak of Denmark’s epidemic will extend a bit further into February than previously forecast, Krause said.

BA.2 cases have also been registered in the UK, Sweden and Norway but to a much lesser extent than in Denmark.

Denmark on Wednesday announced plans to scrap the last of its Covid-19 restrictions by February 1, the latest country in Europe to do so despite record high daily infection numbers.

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