A sample is collected from a worker at a COVID-19 testing site in the Yanqing district of Beijing, China, on March 17, 2022. A fast-spreading variant known as "Stealth Omicron" is testing China’s zero-tolerance strategy, which had kept the virus at bay since the deadly initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan in early 2020. Image Credit: AP

A new coronavirus variant has been identified in several countries, including Israel, Thailand, Hong Kong and Cambodia, Britain and India, reports said. That’s not a surprise since SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been mutating into new strains during the trail of infections worldwide.

The new strain is a combination of Omicron, which has four variants. BA.1 and BA.2 are two of the dominant strains, and these two have combined to produce a new strain, which is referred to as the “BA.2.2” variant. But the name is not official as yet.

Here’s what we know about the new variant.

What’s the new variant?

The new variant has not yet been confirmed. Although some reports refer to it as the “BA.2.2” variant, it’s only a name given by Hong Kong scientists.

It’s a combination of Omicron variants BA.1 (Omicron) and BA.2 (Stealth Omicron). Coronavirus strains have combined in the past too. Deltacron, a hybrid formed by the strains Delta and Omicron, is a recent example.

Supakit Sirilak, head of Thailand’s Department of Medical Sciences, told Thaiger that confirming a new variant takes time, and the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data is trying to obtain more data.

Two COVID strains combining into a new variant is a common phenomenon, Israel’s Chief COVID Officer Salman Zarka said, adding that when there are two viruses in the same cell and it multiplies, “they exchange genetic material, creating a new virus.”

Where was it found?

The new variant was identified in Israel in two returning passengers who arrived at the Ben Gurion airport. Israeli officials say the passengers had contracted the virus in the country itself.

The BA.2.2 strain has also reached India. The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) reported three cases in Maharashtra, Puducherry and Ladakh.

Thailand, its neighbour Cambodia, and Hong Kong recently reported a similar virus. Unconfirmed reports say the variant is also found in Britain.

Where did the new strain originate?

Israeli Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said the new variant could have originated in Israel.

“It’s likely that they [the arriving passengers who tested positive] were infected before boarding the flight in Israel. The variant could have emerged here. We don’t know what it means yet,” he told the local 103FM radio on Wednesday [March 16].

Zarka too indicated that the new variant was local. “A young woman infected a baby and both of her parents,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio without specifying where or when the infections occurred.

But Hong Kong researchers have a different view. The Centre for Medical Genomics at Mahidol University said in a Facebook post that the recent outbreak in Hong Kong could have resulted in the BA.2.2 subvariant.

What are the symptoms of the infection?

An infection caused by the new variant seems to trigger a low fever, muscle aches and headaches.

How widespread is the new variant?

So far, cases have been reported from Israel, Thailand, Hong Kong and Cambodia, Britain and India.

According to Sirilak, 386 BA.2.2 cases have been detected in Hong Kong and 289 in Britain, besides the four cases in Thailand. Britain is yet to confirm the presence of the new strain.

How serious are the infections?

There’s no cause for alarm. Israeli health officials say that the cases didn’t require any special treatment.

“At this point, we’re not concerned about [the new variant leading to] serious cases,” Zarka said.

Sirilak said there is insufficient information to estimate the severity or transmissibility of the new strain.