Two new versions of the BA.2 Omicron coronavirus variant are driving new cases in New York, officials say, helping the region once again become a national Covid hotspot. The variants, BA.2.12 and BA.12.1, so far may be the fastest-spreading forms of the virus to date, although they do not appear to cause more severe cases of coronavirus.
State health officials announced the two variants on Wednesday, saying “these new, highly contagious variants are likely contributing to the increase in cases.”
The pair of variants were responsible for more than 70% of new cases in central New York state in March, a figure now above 90%. The same Covid strains have been identified in 30 other US states and 40 other countries.
“While these subvariants are new, the tools to combat them are not,” state health commissioner Dr. Mary T Bassett said in a statement Wednesday. “These tools will work if we each use them: get fully vaccinated and boosted, test after exposure, symptoms or travel, consider wearing a mask in public indoor spaces and see your healthcare provider at subject of treatment if your test is positive.
The variants both evolved from the BA.2 Omicron variant, a descendant of the BA.1 version of Omicron which caused a massive increase in cases over the winter.
The new variants have a ‘growth advantage’ of around 25% over BA.2, until then the most contagious form of Covid. This means that these new forms could be more likely to reproduce and become the dominant form of coronavirus than other strains.
“It’s just a reminder that we’re not out of the woods when it comes to this virus, and people should continue to take precautions and get fully vaccinated if they haven’t completed their course,” Kirsten St George, virologist for the state, says The New York Times Wednesday.
Although possibly less severe, the new variants bring cases in New York back to levels seen during the 2021 Delta wave.
Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia Medicine in New York, said this week that it appears cases in the state are spreading widely among young people who require fewer hospitalizations, and that the state’s hospital system has plenty of capacity at the moment, compared to the “tsunami” of cases over the winter.
“I remain hopeful that this increase in the number of cases will not translate into a large increase in the number of patients requiring hospitalization,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Hospitalization is not the only thing that matters. But it matters a lot.
He noted, however, that due to the increase in rapid home Covid tests, state data is likely undercounted because these tests are not recorded in government systems.
The growing set of variants comes a month after New York State and New York City both lifted key parts of their indoor mask and vaccine proof warrants.