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Leading French scientist: variant of Omicron may cause new Covid wave

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 scientist holds a test tube labelled with Covid-19 New Variant (Omicron) - Test

Professor Flahault has warned that the new variant of Omicron, which has already been detected elsewhere, could cause another wave of the epidemic in France Pic: Arif biswas / Shutterstock

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.”

The variant, which has 28 more mutations than Omicron, has also been called “Omicron stealth”, as it is thought it often passes under the radar of current sequencing tools.

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.

Read more: France to announce calendar for lifting of Covid rules tonight

Professor Arnaud Fontanet, another member of the Conseil scientifique, also said earlier this week that the “worst-case scenario is receding”.

Read more: French MPs deny Covid vaccine pass comes too late to make a difference 

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”.

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