What is Centaurus? Virologists concerned about new Omicron variant spreading rapidly

Cases of the BA.2.75 variant, nicknamed 'Centaurus', are reportedly rising faster than those of the BA.5 variant, which is known to be extremely transmissible


                            What is Centaurus? Virologists concerned about new Omicron variant spreading rapidly
The World Health Organization (WHO) is closely monitoring the variant (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)
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Virologists are concerned about another Omicron variant -- BA.2.75 -- that is spreading rapidly, having already gained ground in India. It has arrived in the UK and the US too. As of July 12, there were two cases of BA.2.75 detected in the United States. Meanwhile, MPs across England are urging the almost three million adults who are not vaccinated to ensure they get their doses. 

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Nicknamed 'Centaurus', the variant was first detected in India in the beginning of May. These cases are reportedly rising faster than those of the BA.5 variant, which is known to be extremely transmissible. It is also rapidly displacing the previously dominant BA.2 variant in various countries. The variant also been detected in other countries including Australia, Germany, and Canada.

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A ‘wildcard’ property'

The World Health Organization (WHO) is closely monitoring the variant. However, its chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, has claimed that there were not enough samples to get its severity assessed yet, The Guardian reported. Virologists are also concerned about the number of extra mutations BA.2.75 contains, relative to BA.2, from which it may have evolved. “This could mean that it has had the chance to evolve an advantage over an already successful virus lineage," said Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds. 

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“It’s not so much the exact mutations, more the number/combination,” said Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London. “It’s hard to predict the effect of that many mutations appearing together – it gives the virus a bit of a ‘wildcard’ property where the sum of the parts could be worse than the parts individually." Peacock was the first to identify Omicron as a potential concern back in November 2021.

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“It is definitely a potential candidate for what comes after BA.5. Failing that, it’s probably the sort of thing we’ll have come along next, ie a ‘variant of a variant,’" he said, adding, "It’s clearly growing pretty well in India, but India hasn’t got much BA.5, and it is still very unclear how well it fares against [that].”

Should we be concerned?

Speaking of the severity of the variant, Marc Johnson, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Missouri’s school of medicine, told MedPage Today, "We don't really know if BA.2.75 is more transmissible or more severe at this point." He added that Covid vaccines will provide “even less” protection against the most recent version of the virus, but it is essential to be fully vaccinated and boosted.

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“We should be concerned, yes, but we shouldn’t freak out,” Johnson said. “This lineage has a good chance to increase infections and become the new dominant lineage, but it is not likely to cause a sweeping wave the way that omicron did.”

What is the origin of the word 'Centaurus'?

'Centaurus' is only a nickname for the variant and not its official name. A centaur (Latin: centaurus) is a creature from Greek mythology that has the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse. Centaurs are said to be wild, savage, and lustful. The name could have been given because of how different this variant is from the others, considering the number of extra mutations it contains. 

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Another theory says that Centaurus is the father of the mythological beasts called centaurs. Centaurus is said to have been born as a deformed child who hunched over. He had no peace amongst human beings and was thus removed to the mountain of Pelion. It is there that he mated with the Magnesian mares, resulting in the birth of the centaur race. The mating and subsequent birth of the centaur race could be compared to virus mutations. 

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