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Two new South African Covid variants worry health bosses as a new symptom is identified

By Tristan Cork

The boss of the World Health Organisation has warned there are two new sub-variants of Covid emerging in South Africa that are even more infectious, are likely to make vaccines less effective and have two new symptoms.

The WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the new viruses are subvariants of Omicron, which emerged in South Africa last year and have now swept the world in a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new variants are BA.4 and BA.5, and are believed to be responsible for a new surge in cases in South Africa, among people who have already had Omicron.

Read more: Long Covid thought to be impacting 12,000 people in Bristol

The new variants were detected in South Africa last month, and although BA2 ‘stealth’ Omicron remains dominant, the new two are ‘said to be more infectious and are likely to be more efficient at escaping immunity from vaccines’, the WHO chief said. “In many countries we’re essentially blind to how the virus is mutating. We don’t know what’s coming next," he added.

Here in Britain, the ending of mass testing for Covid has led to a decline in official cases, but deaths are still in the hundreds every day, and while Omicron is mainly a mild condition in most peoplethere are still dozens of people being admitted to hospital in Bristol with Covid-19 every week.

The most recent figures from the city’s two NHS trusts show that, at Southmead Hospital, a total of 34 people were in hospital with Covid, and at the BRI and Weston General, another 40 patients had Covid. In the last seven days of April, a total of 96 people were admitted to hospital with Covid in Bristol.

Prof Tim Spector, who has lead the ZOE Covid Study app for the past two years, said the new Omicron variants were showing up two important symptoms - one that is a classic covid symptom, but the second is a newer one.

Prof Spector said, in Omicron cases, loss of sense of smell was an important indicator that the covid infection could be serious. He said if people have that happen, they should take their symptoms seriously, because it means a stronger infection that could be more serious or last longer. And the other symptom hasn’t been widely known about in previous waves of Covid - tinnitus.

Tinnitus, also known as ear ringing, is another symptom to take seriously, said Professor Spector. "It suggests another part of the body is being affected, something internal, more close to the brain,” he said.

The ZOE Covid symptoms team surveyed people who had reported their infections and found that one in five had ear problems - 5,000 out of 14,500 people who tested positive for Covid had ear-ringing and tinnitus that could last for months.

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