Tests may not detect omicron's new 'stealth variant,' doctors warn

Public health experts around the world are closely monitoring a sub-variant of omicron they're referring to as "stealth omicron" because it may be harder to detect with currently-available tests.

The World Health Organization has not called BA.2 a variant of concern, but it’s reached nearly 50 countries including the U.S. That leads scientists to believe it’s even more contagious than the original omicron variant.

"So the way I look at it, it's not a new variant. It's like the sibling of omicron," said Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, an assistant professor of infectious diseases with the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital and medical director for Global Emerging Diseases Institute at TGH.

Scientists first picked up on stealth omicron in Denmark, and they found it’s harder to detect in testing. Dr. Lakshmi explained what that means when a test sample goes to a lab.

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"You can still you can still detect the virus. That's not going to change. You just can't tell which variant it is. So nothing about how quickly you can detect is going to change. But telling which variant of COVID it is that might take a little longer, depending on what machines are being used," said Lakshmi.

Picking up on which variant is going around is important. TGH sequences its own samples of COVID-19, and Dr. Lakshmi said its machines will be able to pick up stealth omicron.

"What I can tell you is based on what we have done at USF-TGH is that we have not seen as of our most recent sequencing run, we have not seen a stealth variant here," she said.

Now the focus is on how contagious the mutation may be, how well vaccines work against it and how severe the disease can get.

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"So it's a little bit harder to detect a little bit more contagious. But likely, vaccines will work and likely won't be deadlier. That's what we know so far and might change, but at least that's how we're thinking about it right now," said Lakshmi.

What hasn’t changed is the risk to unvaccinated people. TGH reported hospitalizations of unvaccinated patients over the past year far outnumbered those with the shot. So public health experts said vaccines offer the best protection against the virus as it changes.

"Right now what is in our power to do is making sure our loved ones are boosted and protected to the best possible abilities as we learn more about the stealth variant," said Lakshmi.

Doctors said getting tested if you have symptoms is still very important, and getting a booster shot will bump up your level of protection.