Tracking the New BA.2.86 COVID Variant
Health authorities are closely monitoring a newly identified variant of the COVID-19 virus, named BA.2.86, which has emerged with significant mutations. This lineage is drawing attention due to its distinctive genetic makeup, with 36 mutations setting it apart from the prevalent XBB.1.5 variant. As of late July, six cases of BA.2.86 have been detected across four countries.
What Sets BA.2.86 Apart?
The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are vigilant about the BA.2.86 variant. Although it has not shown evidence of spreading more rapidly or causing more severe illness compared to earlier versions, its genetic differences are noteworthy. However, health officials stress that the existing recommendations for protecting oneself from COVID-19 remain unchanged.
The Current Landscape of COVID Infections
COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have been on the rise globally. The EG.5 “Eris” subvariant, derived from the Omicron lineage that emerged in November 2021, has contributed to an increase in recent cases in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
Spread and Detection of BA.2.86
Recent days have seen the identification of BA.2.86 cases in various countries. One case each has been documented in the United States, the UK, and Israel, while Denmark has reported three cases.
Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital, explains that BA.2.86 originates from an earlier branch of the coronavirus family. This divergence could potentially impact its interactions with the immune responses triggered by previous infections or vaccinations. The variant’s unique mutations make its structure notably distinct from previous versions.
Experts are cautious about the trajectory of BA.2.86, given the pace at which new cases are surfacing and the limited analysis of recent virus genomes. Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, emphasizes the uncertainty surrounding the variant’s transmissibility.
Severity of Illness and Vaccination
While emergency department visits and hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased, the overall severity of cases, especially with the Eris variant, appears lower than earlier waves. Wider circulation of BA.2.86 could pose risks to vulnerable populations, potentially causing more severe illness and fatalities.
Vaccine Efficacy Against BA.2.86
Existing vaccines continue to offer protection against severe illness and death, despite the emergence of new variants. Updated booster shots are being developed to target evolving subvariants like XBB.1.5. Both Moderna and Pfizer are conducting trials to assess the efficacy of their vaccines against newer variants like Eris and Fornax.
While the emergence of the BA.2.86 variant raises questions about its impact, health authorities are closely monitoring its developments. The efficacy of vaccines, the transmissibility of the variant, and the severity of illness are key areas of ongoing research. As the situation unfolds, adhering to recommended preventive measures remains crucial.