Professor Antoine Flahault also says that the variant – dubbed ‘BA.2’ – may be the reason cases are not falling as quickly as expected in France.
A French scientist has warned that a new variant of the Covid Omicron virus, dubbed “BA.2,” could cause a new wave of the epidemic in France, just days after authorities predicted the peak of infections was passing.
Professor Antoine Flahault, epidemiologist at the Institut Pasteur and a member of government advisory body le Conseil scientifique, has said that “BA.2” could cause a “rebound” spread across the country.
Professor Flahault, who is also director at The Institute of Global Health in Geneva, said that the new variant could be the reason that cases in France are not falling as quickly as expected.
He told CNews this morning (January 20): “In the UK, the number of new Covid-19 cases is halving every seven days. We expected France to follow the UK’s lead, with a two-week delay: this is not the case.”
In the UK, 108,069 new Covid cases were recorded yesterday (January 19), and the number of infections being reported each week has come down by at least 37.5%, meaning that the curve of the Omicron-related wave is now moving sharply downwards.
In France, there were 436,167 new cases yesterday, and the infection rate is still rising.
“This new variant could be the source of the very recent increase in contaminations that we are currently seeing,” Professor Flauhault said.
He added that the BA.2 (as opposed to BA.1, the current dominant Omicron variant), has already been detected in India, Singapore, and Belgium.
He said: “It [also] seems to be responsible for the epidemic rebound in Denmark, and could even become a majority in this country.”
Professor Flauhaut said: “It’s a variant that seems very close [to the current Omicron], but for the moment, we have very little data on its strength or its capacity to spread.”
The professor said that “even though it has not yet been classed as a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation, we still think that it’s very contagious”.
“We will soon know if it escapes the immunity provided by the vaccines and previous infections and will know more about its virulence,” Professor Flauhault told LCI.
“We are watching the situation in Denmark closely, because that will help us understand more.
“I do not know whether [France’s infection rate] will continue to rise or if it will fall. The key is to find out if this sub-variant can affect people who have just had the virus. It is not very likely, but we must study the possibility closely.
“For as long as we do not have a response to this question, it is risky to try and make predictions.”
The warning comes just days after government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said: “We have reasons to be optimistic [and we are seeing] the start of a retreat of the epidemic”, as the peak of the current wave is considered to be passing.
Professor Arnaud Fontanet, another member of the Conseil scientifique, also said earlier this week that the “worst-case scenario is receding”.
But Professor Flauhaut cast doubt on these early signs of progress.
He said: “I do not have complete confidence in the predictions people are making today on the peak of the fifth wave, and on a potentially-fast retreat. We are not in a good enough situation in France to be talking about an epidemic decrease.”
He recalled the situation from mid-December 2021, when “we thought we had hit the peak, but the Omicron variant relaunched the spread of the virus. This new strain could also launch more cases”.
Characteristic mutations of BA.2
Should we be concerned?
Omicron, which is also referred to as B.1.1.529, has three main substrains, BA.1, BA.2, and BA.3, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Up until now, it has been BA.1 that has been dominating with the WHO estimating it makes up a large majority of all Omicron cases.
However, in some places, the BA.2 has begun to spread faster.
In Denmark, it now makes up almost half of all Omicron cases. Other countries such as the UK, Norway and Sweden are also experiencing an increase in BA.2 cases, although not to the same extent.
“Initial analysis shows no differences in hospitalisations for BA.2 compared to BA.1,” said Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, a government-run infectious disease research center, in a statement on Thursday.
“Analyses regarding infectiousness and vaccine efficiency etc. are ongoing, including attempts to cultivate BA.2 in order to perform antibody neutralization studies. It is expected that vaccines also have an effect against severe illness upon BA.2 infection”.
At least 20 cases of Omicron sub-variant BA2 detected in Israel
The Health Ministry on Thursday announced several cases of a sub-variant of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus have been found in Israel.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, at least 20 such cases have been identified in the country.
BA2 has already been identified in several countries and carries additional mutations beyond those possessed by Omicron.