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New omicron subvariant found in Twin Cities area wastewater

The BA.2 subvariant has been found in most states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and accounts for nearly 4% of cases nationwide.

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Researchers have detected the new omicron variant, BA.2, in samples taken at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment plant in St. Paul.
Star Tribune / TNS
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A new form of the highly contagious omicron variant has been detected in Twin Cities wastewater but at low levels.

The subvariant, known as omicron BA.2, is 30-50% more infectious than its predecessor, but researchers are still trying to determine whether it is more severe.

It is also unclear whether it will evade immunity protection offered by previous COVID-19 illness, including for the many thousands of Minnesotans who were infected during the recent spike of omicron cases, and vaccination.

The BA.2 subvariant has been found in most states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and accounts for nearly 4% of cases nationwide.

"We see that in the slightly rising case rate in the United States," said Dr. Rick Kennedy, co-head of the vaccine research unit at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. "We will see that continue to go up and we may even see a BA.2 spike like we had with omicron."

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The BA.2 subvariant was first found shortly after the original omicron strain, now known as BA.1, was discovered in late November. In some countries, such as South Africa, it has become the dominant form of the virus.

"Some countries are seeing that spike but others are not," Kennedy said. "In some parts of the world, most of the cases in the country are BA.2, but hospitalization rates really haven't climbed up at all and the severity looks pretty similar to omicron."

However, in Denmark an outbreak of BA.2 has increased hospitalizations.

"They were just coming out of an omicron spike and thought they were out of the woods," Kennedy said.

The Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul saw indications of BA.2 a few weeks ago as part of its ongoing analysis of COVID-19 trends conducted in partnership with the University of Minnesota.

Last week, researchers found BA.2 was present in 4.4% of samples for the week ending Feb. 14, up from 1.6% the previous week.

The plant treats wastewater for 1.95 million metro area residents, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and more than 60 suburbs. Wastewater analysis is a good predictor of COVID-19 trends because the genetic material of the virus shows up in sewage before people seek testing, which usually comes after they develop symptoms.

So far, the overall COVID-19 trends in Twin Cities wastewater are still going down despite the appearance of BA.2.

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"All of the indications are since the first week of January it has been going down, down, down very quickly and much more rapidly than many of the other waves that we have seen," said Steve Balogh, a principal research scientist at the Metropolitan Council.

Minnesota's case numbers and trends bear that out.

Another 4,050 new COVID-19 infections were announced Wednesday by the Minnesota Department of Health. Because of reporting delays caused by the Presidents' Day holiday, the number represents four days of test results made to the health agency since 4 a.m. Saturday.

Minnesota's testing positivity rate has fallen to 7.5%, the lowest since last October.

Hospitalizations continue to decline, with 622 COVID-19 patients in the state's hospitals, including 98 requiring intensive care.

There were another 26 COVID-19 deaths announced Wednesday, bringing the number of fatalities to 12,019. There have been more than 1.4 million COVID-19 infections detected by testing.

Through genetic analysis of testing samples, Minnesota has found 55 cases of the BA.2 variant in the month that ended Feb. 12. That accounts for 0.5% of the state's omicron cases to date. One of the cases was hospitalized while there have been no deaths among the known BA.2 cases, according to agency spokesman Doug Schultz.

The Metropolitan Council is scheduled to release updated BA.2 prevalence data on Friday.

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Scientists are still studying the subvariant to better understand its transmissibility, severity and ability to evade immunity protections.

Some people who had the original BA.1 omicron have gotten sick later with BA.2, but preliminary research indicates that it is not common.

"Reinfection with BA.2 following infection with BA.1 has been documented," the World Health Organization said in a statement Tuesday. "However, initial data from population-level reinfection studies suggest that infection with BA.1 provides strong protection against reinfection with BA.2, at least for the limited period for which data are available."

As the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to mutate from the original version, it has tended to become more infectious, which helps it crowd out other variants, Kennedy said. But more needs to be learned about whether BA.2 resembles the original omicron in terms of disease severity.

"I'm sure we will start to get more information from other parts of the world where most of the cases are now BA.2," Kennedy said. "In the next coming weeks we will have a clearer picture."

©2022 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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