As Taiwan experiences another wave of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, doctors report seeing a high number of children with neurological diseases, including encephalitis. According to a research report by a Taipei hospital, the surge in encephalitis cases appears to be correlated with an Omicron subvariant mutation.
The study by Tri-Service General Hospital in Taipei, published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, found a new mutation in the S protein that belongs to the Omicron BA.2.3.7 lineage.
The K97E mutation had not been observed in Taiwan before the surge of Omicron cases, and researchers infer that with this mutation, the virus can cause a cytokine storm, which may explain the sudden rise of pediatric COVID-19 patients with adverse neurological complications.
At a press conference on Sept. 14, spokespersons for the Tri-Service Hospital said that after analyzing samples of six pediatric patients with COVID-19 infection and encephalitis, the Omicron BA.2.3.7 variant was discovered. The location of the K97E mutation is related to the coronavirus replication process and interferes with the patient’s immune regulation, which could induce acute encephalitis.
Hung Sheng Shang, the director of the Clinical Pathology Department at Tri-Service General Hospital, noted that K97E mutation was not seen in the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, the latter of which is currently dominant in Taiwan.
According to Chi-Sheng Chen, the director of the Department of Pediatrics at the same hospital, the K97E mutation was found in critically ill children, and a high number of inflammatory indices were observed. However, no evidence of viral infection was found in the central nervous system, and further research is needed to scientifically validate the cause of encephalitis, Chen said.