Two Omicron variants newly classified as variants of concern in UK

Variants Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 are believed to have a 'growth advantage' over the dominant variant in the UK

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Two types of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 have been newly classified as variants of concern in the UK.

Only a small number of cases of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 have been identified so far in the country, but analysis of the available data suggests they are likely to have a “growth advantage” over Omicron BA.2, currently the dominant variant, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

As of May 20, 115 cases of probable or confirmed BA.4 have been identified, with 67 in England, 41 in Scotland, six in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.

Some 80 cases of BA.5 have been identified, with 48 in England, 25 in Scotland, six in Northern Ireland and one in Wales.

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Dr Meera Chand, UKHSA director of clinical and emerging infections, said: “The reclassification of these variants as variants of concern reflects emerging evidence on the growth of BA.4 and BA.5 internationally and in the UK.

“Whilst the impact of these variants is uncertain, the variant classification system aims to identify potential risk as early as possible.

“UKHSA is undertaking further detailed studies. Data and analysis will be released in due course through our regular surveillance reporting.”

There is currently no data to determine the impact of the variants on hospital admissions in the UK.

But initial findings suggest BA.4 and BA.5 have a degree of “immune escape” – meaning the immune system can no longer recognise or fight a virus – which is likely to contribute to their growth advantage over BA.2, the UKHSA added.