Covid infection rates have started to rise again across Wales over the last week. All of the country’s 22 local authorities reported an increase in cases in the seven days up to March 11, according to latest figures from Public Health Wales.
It’s a similar picture across the UK, with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all experiencing spikes as restrictions are eased by their respective governments. Aside from the greater freedoms many of us now enjoy, as well as the waning of vaccine protection, scientists claim part of the recent surge in cases has been attributed to new variants, or sub-variants, of coronavirus which have been identified.
As a result, it has brought confusion as to whether symptoms vary between strains or have different levels of contagiousness and severity. So, to help, here’s our rundown of what to look out for in each of the newest variants.
What are the typical Covid symptoms according to the NHS?
According to NHS 111 Wales there remain three main general symptoms of coronavirus. These are:
- a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature);
- a new, continuous cough – coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual);
- loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – you’ve noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal.
Most people with coronavirus have at least one of these symptoms.
What are the symptoms of Omicron (BA.1)?
In December and over the New Year, the UK was hit by a wave of infections caused by the Omicron variant, also known as BA.1, after it spread from southern Africa. It is understood to account for 98.8% of all Covid cases submitted to the GISAID global database for tracking the virus since January 25. Studies have also shown that Omicron infects and multiplies in the upper airways 70 times faster than the previous Delta variant.
The five most common symptoms of Omicron are:
- runny nose;
- sore throat.
Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine and an infectious diseases physician at Australian National University, said Omicron was more likely to cause a sore throat than Delta and less likely to be associated with the loss of taste or smell. In children, Omicron may be more likely to cause the condition croup, which leads to a distinctive barking cough. Croup is associated with other viruses, but Omicron’s ability to infect the upper airways so efficiently may allow it to cause croup more than some other Covid variants.
While cases of Omicron have fallen dramatically since the January peak, this strain of the virus continues to be an active threat for billions of people – including more vulnerable people in the UK.
A statement by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 7 said: “As we enter the third year of the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is spreading between people at an intense level globally. There are many factors that are driving transmission. One of these is the emergence of highly transmissible variants of concern, the latest being Omicron. The virus continues to evolve and the risk of future emergence of variants is high.”
What are the symptoms of Stealth Omicron (BA.2)?
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said that a sub-lineage of Omicron, also known as BA.2 or “Stealth Omicron”, is being treated as a “variant under investigation” after it was first discovered last December.
Its chief executive, Dr Jenny Harries, said last week: “The increasing presence of the BA.2 sub-lineage of Omicron and the recent slight increase in infections in those over 55 show that the pandemic is not over and that we can expect to see Covid circulating at high levels.”
The Wellcome Sanger Institute has calculated that the strain accounted for more than half (57%) of the 27,000 new cases recorded in England in the final week of February and is therefore already the dominant version of the virus being transmitted. It is feared BA.2 could be more transmissible than its predecessor. Professor Adrian Esterman, a former WHO epidemiologist, warned on Twitter that: “Omicron BA.2 is about 1.4 times more infectious than BA.1. The basic reproduction number (R0) for BA.1 is about 8.2, making R0 for BA.2 about 12. This makes it pretty close to measles, the most contagious disease we know about.”
Early findings in Denmark suggest that the Stealth Omicron does not pose any serious risk to life and does not cause any severe symptoms, nor does it increase the risk of hospitalisation or death. However, unlike the original variant, the BA.2 sub-variant may have the ability to dodge tracking. According to the UKHSA, Covid’s Omicron variant contains a genetic deletion in the “S” spike gene that makes it easier to track. However, in the stealth Omicron, there is no such gene drop out which makes it harder to detect.
It is not currently known whether Stealth Omicron produces different symptoms to the versions of the coronavirus we have seen so far, but according to the ZOE Covid app, the most common symptoms being reported by patients at present are a runny nose, headache, sore throat and fatigue. Other common Covid indicators include sneezing, persistent cough, hoarseness, chills or shivers, unusual joint pains, fever, dizziness, brain fog, sore eyes, altered sense of smell, muscle pains, swollen glands, loss of appetite and chest pains.
Dr Meera Chand, Covid-19 incident director at UKHSA, said of the new sub-lineage: “It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it’s to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic goes on. Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant. So far, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether BA.2 causes more severe illness than Omicron BA.1, but data is limited and UKHSA continues to investigate. Case rates remain high throughout the UK and we must remain vigilant and take up vaccinations. We should all continue to test regularly with LFDs and take a PCR test if symptoms develop.”
What are the symptoms of Deltacron?
Deltacron, which was first discovered in January, has since been identified in the United States, France and parts of the UK. It is understood that the variant was created by someone infected with Delta and Omicron at the same time and their cells replicating together. Researchers say the “backbone” of Deltacron is derived from Delta, but its spike protein – which allows the virus to gain entry to human cells – originates from Omicron.
With very few cases of the new variant so far, there is little data which can be used to predict how contagious this variant is and how it will fare against vaccines. Dr Meng Khaw, national director for health protection and screening services at Public Health Wales, said the NHS trust kept new and emerging variants of coronavirus “under constant review”.
“Public Health Wales is aware of cases of Covid-19, described as ‘Deltacron’. There are currently no reported cases in Wales, but we expect to see cases eventually as we have seen with other variants. The Omicron variant remains the dominant variant in Wales,” he explained.
“There is no evidence of vaccine escape issues relating to Deltacron, and the best thing you can do to protect yourself against this and other variants is to take up the offer of coronavirus vaccine. You can also protect yourself and others by maintaining a social distance where possible, washing hands regularly, keeping homes well-ventilated, using a face covering, and working from home if you can.”
It is not thought that this variant has different symptoms to previous types of Covid, therefore the symptoms to watch out for remain the same.
“If you develop a cough, fever, or change in sense of taste or smell, the public health advice remains that you should self-isolate immediately in order to protect others,” said Dr Khaw.
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