After weeks of record infections over the Christmas period and January, the incidence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has been dropping considerably throughout February.
Despite 82 percent of the population being fully vaccinated and half having had a booster shot, Omicron has resulted in 12,000+ deaths in Spain, more than the fifth and fourth coronavirus waves given the sheer number of infections over the past months.
In fact, there have been more than five million cases during Spain’s sixth wave, which equals more than all infections recorded during all other previous waves.
Fortunately, the pandemic is gradually improving and the Spanish government does want to work towards treating Covid-19 as an endemic disease, as in the case of seasonal influenza.
Will there be a seventh wave? Opinions vary among health experts in Spain but there is growing concern by the World Health Organisation that the next stage of the global pandemic will have the Omicron subvariant BA.2 at the centre of it.
It’s been unofficially referred to as the ‘Stealth’ Covid variant or ‘Stealth Omicron’ given that it’s not as easily detectable with standard testing and is reported to be more transmissible than the original dominant BA.1 Omicron variant.
So far it has been detected in at least 74 countries worldwide and it’s become the dominant subvariant in restrictions-free Denmark as well China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, and the US looks to be on the same track.
Will ‘Stealth’ Omicron cause problems in Spain?
According to the latest Health Ministry update of Spain’s Covid-19 variants and epidemiological situation on February 21st, sequencing carried out in ten regions has shown that BA.2 cases doubled, tripled or quadrupled in these territories from February 14th to 20th.
The original BA.1 subvariant does continue to be dominant, accounting for between 79 and 98 percent of cases across the country.
This however may not paint a clear picture of just how much the subvariant is spreading across Spain given the low rate of sequencing carried out at Spanish laboratories: six percent of tested cases, below the 10 percent recommended by the European Commission.
Spain is following the global trend in rising ‘Stealth’ Omicron cases, with the latest data seeing the World Health Organisation urge countries to keep a close eye on this subvariant.
Scientific studies have so far shown that the BA.2 is 40 percent more transmissible than BA.1, but that the difference isn’t as great as between the Omicron variant as a whole and Delta.
When it comes to how capable ‘Stealth’ Omicron is of causing serious illness or death, the scientific results are more mixed.
New lab testing from Japan shows that BA.2 may have features that make it as severe as previous variants of Covid, including Delta.
But on the other hand hospitalisations are falling in countries where BA.2 is growing such as South Africa or the UK, but more people are being hospitalised in Denmark where the subvariant is dominant.
Other questions remain, including the risk of reinfection with BA.2 compared to BA.1
The most common reported symptoms of the ‘Stealth’ subvariant are the same as for the original Omicron subvariant: high temperature, cough, nasal congestion, headache and sore throat.
What could all this mean in practice for the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions in Spain?
Spanish health experts are divided over whether there will be a seventh wave, but the possibility of a “more aggressive variant” is one of the reasons given for there being another spike in Covid cases.
At present not enough is known about ‘Stealth’ Omicron for it to be clear to Spanish health authorities whether it should affect its plan to lift the remaining Covid restrictions in the coming months. It seems likely that only a drastic rise in Covid hospitalisations and deaths caused by the subvariant could force them to change their stance.
This pandemic has surprised us before, and no doubt has the power to do so again.