WHO monitoring new highly mutated strain of COVID-19 in Michigan.

WHO monitoring new highly mutated strain of COVID-19 in Michigan.

New COVID Variant BA.2.86: A Swift Entry into the WHO’s Watchlist

COVID Variant

A new COVID variant, known as BA.2.86, has swiftly captured the attention of the World Health Organization (WHO) as it enters the “variant under monitoring” category. Despite only four known cases identified globally so far, including one in Michigan, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already initiated tracking measures for this variant.

This twofold approach of immediate monitoring reflects the global commitment to track and respond to emerging COVID-19 variants. Kathleen Conley, a CDC spokesperson, emphasized the preparedness of scientists and their continuous efforts to understand the newly identified lineage, promising to share more information as it becomes available.

BA.2.86 has raised concerns due to its numerous genetic mutations, similar to those observed in the original omicron variant’s emergence in 2021. Although it is not yet clear if these mutations make the variant dangerous, WHO acknowledges that additional data is required to assess its potential impact.

Compounding concerns is the possibility that BA.2.86 has been spreading undetected for some time, with reports of cases emerging in countries across three continents. Apart from the United States, Denmark and Israel have also reported cases. The discovery of the first U.S. case occurred through baseline surveillance at the University of Michigan’s clinical microbiology lab.

Notably, some of the mutations in BA.2.86 are present in areas of the virus that could potentially allow it to evade immunity acquired through prior vaccination or infection. The evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom highlighted this concern, stating that the variant may have equal or greater ability to escape from antibodies produced by vaccines or previous omicron variants.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that BA.2.86 remains rare, and the human body possesses other defenses that could help combat even highly mutated variants. According to Bloom, broader mechanisms of immunity generated by vaccination and past infections still provide some protection against severe disease, even against heavily mutated variants.

The question remains whether BA.2.86 can outcompete existing fast-spreading strains descended from the XBB omicron variant, which currently dominate the COVID-19 landscape. If the variant fails to surpass these strains, experts believe it may not pose a significant threat. For instance, the EG.5 variant, a descendant of XBB, has steadily increased in prevalence and now accounts for 1 in every 5 COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the CDC. Pending further cases, BA.2.86 will remain grouped with omicron BA.2 until it reaches at least 1% of known cases.

Coinciding with the emergence of BA.2.86, vaccine manufacturers are preparing to launch a new generation of COVID-19 vaccines in September, specifically targeting XBB strains of the virus, to which EG.5 is closely related. In a promising development, Moderna announced that its vaccine provides a significant boost in neutralizing antibodies for the EG.5 variant. However, this efficacy could be compromised if BA.2.86 successfully spreads. Bloom expressed concerns that the multitude of mutations in this new variant could make it a relatively poor match for any XBB-targeted vaccine.

The vigilance and proactive response of health organizations and researchers in identifying and tracking BA.2.86 highlight the ongoing efforts to mitigate the impact of emerging COVID-19 variants. Despite this new challenge, ongoing vaccinations, combined with broader mechanisms of immunity, offer hope in the fight against even the most mutated strains of the virus.

More information: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on how the agency tracks variants. SOURCE: CBS News, Aug. 17, 2023