‘Stealth’ Omicron is now the dominant strain in Spain: What you should know

With Spain’s sixth coronavirus wave now over, one of the main concerns among health authorities has seen the large rise in cases of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant in the country. But is there reason to be worried and could it affect the easing of the last Covid restrictions in the coming months?

'Stealth' Omicron is now the dominant strain in Spain: What you should know
The original BA.1 subvariant does continue to be dominant accounting for between 79 and 98 percent of cases across the country. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

After weeks of record infections over the Christmas period and January, the incidence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant dropped considerably throughout February and plateaued in March to the current roughly 450 cases per 100,000 people. 

Despite 82 percent of the population being fully vaccinated and half having had a booster shot, Omicron and the sixth wave resulted in 12,000+ deaths in Spain and more than five million cases, which equals more than all infections recorded during all other previous waves.

Fortunately, the pandemic is gradually improving and the Spanish government does want to work towards treating Covid-19 as an endemic disease, as in the case of seasonal influenza, the latest measure being to scrap quarantine for asymptomatic and mild cases from March 28th.

Will there be a seventh wave? Opinions vary among health experts in Spain but there is growing concern by the World Health Organisation that the next stage of the global pandemic will have the Omicron subvariant BA.2 at the centre of it. 

It’s been unofficially referred to as the ‘Stealth’ Covid variant or ‘Stealth Omicron’ given that it’s not as easily detectable with standard testing and is reported to be more transmissible than the original dominant BA.1 Omicron variant.

So far it has been detected in at least 80 countries worldwide and it’s become the dominant subvariant in restrictions-free Denmark, the UK as well China, India, Pakistan,the Philippines, and now also Spain.

Will ‘Stealth’ Omicron cause problems in Spain?

According to the latest update by Spain’s Health Emergencies Centre (CCAES), the BA.2 subvariant was now responsible for between 31 and 79 percent of new infections in Spain between March 7th and 13th.

This came after weeks of sequencing carried out in ten regions which showed that BA.2 cases tripled, then quadrupled throughout February. 

The original BA.1 subvariant, which just over a month ago accounted for between 79 and 98 percent of cases across the country, has now been replaced as the dominant strain by the BA.2 subvariant.

And we may still not have a clear picture of just how much the subvariant is spreading across Spain given the low rate of sequencing carried out at Spanish laboratories: six percent of tested cases, below the 10 percent recommended by the European Commission.

Spain is following the global trend in rising ‘Stealth’ Omicron cases, with the latest data seeing the World Health Organisation urge countries to keep a close eye on this subvariant.

Scientific studies have so far shown that the BA.2 is 40 percent more transmissible than BA.1, but that the difference isn’t as great as between the Omicron variant as a whole and Delta.

When it comes to how capable ‘Stealth’ Omicron is of causing serious illness or death, the scientific results are more mixed.

“It’s too early to draw conclusions about the characteristics of this strain,” CCAES reported, whilst Spain’s Health Ministry has stated that “so far no differences have been found regarding the risk of hospitalisation between BA.1 and BA.2”.

Lab testing from Japan in February showed that BA.2 may have features that make it as severe as previous variants of Covid, including Delta.

Covid hospitalisations are also up in Denmark and the UK where the subvariant is dominant, but this may be more closely linked to the fact that all Covid restrictions including mask wearing have been dropped in those countries.

Other questions remain, including the risk of reinfection with BA.2 compared to BA.1.

The most common reported symptoms of the ‘Stealth’ subvariant are the same as for the original Omicron subvariant: high temperature, cough, nasal congestion, headache and sore throat. 

What could all this mean in practice for the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions in Spain? 

At present not enough is known about ‘Stealth’ Omicron for it to be clear to Spanish health authorities whether it should affect its plan to lift the remaining Covid rules in the coming months. 

As of late March, it doesn’t seem that BA.2 is a major concern for health authorities as they have decided to scrap the mandatory seven-day quarantine for asymptomatic and mild Covid cases and to stop counting each and every positive case.

But the government is dragging its feet on the removal of the indoor face mask requirement which Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez promised would happen “very soon”, and the lack of knowledge about the ‘Stealth’ Omicron variant could be one of the reasons behind this. 

Spanish health experts are also divided over whether there will be a seventh wave, but the possibility of a “more aggressive variant” is one of the reasons given for there being another spike in Covid cases. 

Only a drastic rise in Covid hospitalisations and deaths caused by the subvariant could force them to change their stance. 

This pandemic has surprised us before, and no doubt it has the power to do so again, but currently it doesn’t appear that ‘Stealth’ Omicron will change the direction of the pandemic strategy in Spain.  

READ ALSO: Will Spain change its domestic and travel Covid rules ahead of Easter?

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.