More contagious omicron subvariant BA.2 spreads as mask mandates lift


Arely Sun

A technician from Inspire Diagnostics applies a sticker to a mini test vial in the Rotunda, the upper school’s COVID-19 testing site, on Feb. 4. BA.2 received the title “stealth variant” due to unique genetic traits that make it difficult to trace since it often appears as the delta variant in tests.

by Kinnera Mulam, Copy Editor

The omicron subvariant BA.2 has appeared in over 40 countries, including the U.S, and is much more contagious than its predecessor. 

As BA.1, or omicron, cases decline, states such as California, Oregon and Washington have lifted school mask mandates even for the unvaccinated. Similarly, New York, Nevada and Illinois have lifted their mask mandates. Despite suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stick to mask mandates, states refused to do so as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have decreased by 50% and hospitalizations by 30% in the last three weeks. 

“People just want to go back to normal,” Public Health Club co-president Kevin Wang (12) said. “I think that’s why a lot of the governors are removing the mandate, but we should also still be taking precautions. New variants can definitely pop out and we should monitor that and make sure we are constantly adjusting our policies to any new information that we have.”

With the rise of the new subvariant, upper school biology teacher Eric Johnson feels as though decreased masking will have more severe repercussions than initially believed as vaccinations country-wide are still low at 64.8%. At Harker, 96.8% of students are vaccinated while 97.8% of teachers are. 

BA.2 received the title “stealth variant” due to its unique genetic traits that make it difficult to trace. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests check for “S gene target failure” to identify omicron cases, but BA.2 lacks the gene, so it often appears in data as the delta variant. Misidentification of variants can lead to a false interpretation of symptoms and faulty data. 

Current vaccines are as effective against still combating BA.2 as BA.1, which the vaccine had 90% efficacy against, but as more variants arise, vaccines will no longer retain their efficacy against them. The cause lies in the development of vaccines

Once a vaccine enters the body, it triggers cells to create spike proteins, which also exist on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. These cells then destroy and remove the protein’s mRNA and display the spike proteins on their surfaces. The body’s immune system will then identify the spike protein as an intruder and activate immune cells to combat the virus, but the vaccine only instructs the body to produce a specific spike protein, so as more variants arise, that protein mutates. As a result, its presence will go unnoticed, and the immune system will fail to fight it off. 

“If we’re allowing [spike proteins] to mutate, they’re changing the mechanism by which they get into our cells, which is the scary thing,” Johnson said. “We build our vaccines against those spike [proteins], so what happens if they start changing what they look like all of a sudden — like if they’re not wearing a giant mustache anymore — what happens to our vaccines? They don’t work.”

As of mid-November last year, more than 36 countries have reported 15,000 sequenced cases of BA.2 to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), and 96 of them came from the U.S. Currently, the mutant has more presence in Asia and Europe, with Denmark labeling 45% of their COVID-19 cases as BA.2 halfway through January. Denmark also reported that they expect all of their omicron cases to comprise of BA.2 by mid-February. 

In January, schools across the country reverted to remote learning to prevent transmission of omicron, but Harker remained in-person and took other measures to keep students safe, such as moving all class and school meetings online as well as weekly testing on Fridays. According to upper school nurse Jennifer Olson, school meetings will continue this way, but class meetings can now either take place over Zoom or in-person. 

As of this week, students can also choose to dine indoors in Manzanita. Since BA.2 is more contagious than BA.1, Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) club member Vika Gautham (9) wonders whether students and staff should return to online school if the situation were to escalate. 

“I do hope we will still stay in person because in online [school], you get fatigued easily and it’s not as great as learning in person,” Vika said. I think it’s great that we’re doing class meetings and school meetings from advisory now.”

Johnson believes that Harker’s strong communication and resources will prevent the school from returning to remote learning even with the BA.2 surge. They noted that Harker is doing particularly well with cases with only 76 upper school students and 31 staff members having tested positive for COVID-19. 

“It’s scary, but I think there’s a trust we have when we come here that’s like, ‘I’m safe in this community,’” Johnson said. “Since there are a lot of people who are vaccinated, and we’re getting tested, and they’re telling us when things are happening, I do feel safe in this community and that’s a privilege.”