Coronavirus: What do we know about new COVID-19 Omicron subvariant BA.4 after detection in New Zealand

A new COVID-19 Omicron subvariant has been detected in New Zealand in a person returning from overseas.

The Ministry of Health revealed in their daily 1pm press release that a person who has travelled from overseas to New Zealand has been confirmed as having the BA.4 variant of Omicron, which is the first known detection of the variant in the country.

They arrived in New Zealand from South Africa on April 22 and returned a positive rapid test the following day, and a positive PCR test two days later, health officials said.

"The person followed all testing and reporting requirements, allowing this new sub-variant to be identified quickly and has been isolating at home," the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

The Ministry of Health says the arrival of the new variant is not unexpected and isn't being treated as being of concern. 

"The arrival of this sub-variant in New Zealand is not unexpected," the Health Ministry said in their 1pm press release on Sunday.

"At this stage, the public health settings already in place to manage other Omicron variants are assessed to be appropriate for managing BA.4 and no changes are required."

So what do we know about this new variant? 

The new variant - BA.4 - has been widely found in Southern Africa and Europe while a case was reported in New South Wales on Friday. 

The BA.4 variant is one of the different Omicron subvariants being monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO first identified the new Omicron strain, and another, BA.5 in mid-April, warning they contain mutations that may help them evade the immune system in people already vaccinated.

There is no evidence to date that BA.4 is more transmissible or causes more severe disease than other Omicron lineages, in particular the BA.2 Omicron sub-variant that is causing the vast majority of infections in New Zealand, New Zealand health officials said. 

"It can take weeks or months to identify the severity of each new variant or sub-variant, so the Ministry of Health will continue to monitor the emerging evidence closely," the Health Ministry added.

The WHO said in a recent report that scientists are still studying the new variant, but it doesn’t appear that BA.4 causes more severe disease than other versions of the virus.

Two other sub-variants of Omicron - BA.2.12.1 and BA 2.12.2 - have also been detected in two returnees for the first time in New Zealand from travellers arriving on April 11 and 15. 

The Ministry of Health said neither sub-variant is currently regarded as being of concern.

Meanwhile, there was a drop in COVID-19 cases on Sunday for the fourth straight day with 5656 new infections and 466 hospitalisations reported.

Another six COVID-19 deaths were reported, which included people who had died over the previous three days.