A new coronavirus variant, named BA.2.86, has emerged with a high number of mutations in its spike protein, raising concerns among scientists and health authorities. The variant has been detected in several countries, including the United States, and is being closely monitored for its potential impact on the pandemic. Here are some key facts about BA.2.86 and what experts are saying about it.
How did BA.2.86 originate and where has it been found?
BA.2.86 is a descendant of the Omicron variant, which caused a global surge of COVID-19 cases in early 2022. However, BA.2.86 has acquired 34 additional changes in its spike protein, which is the part of the virus that binds to human cells and triggers an immune response. Scientists suspect that BA.2.86 emerged from a chronic infection in a person with a weakened immune system, where the virus had more time and opportunity to evolve.
So far, only nine cases of BA.2.86 have been reported to the global virus database GISAID, as of August 25, 2023. Three are in Denmark, two are in South Africa, two are in the U.S., one is in Israel, and another is in the United Kingdom. The first known U.S. case was reported from a sample collected on August 3, 2023, by a lab at the University of Michigan. The second U.S. case was reported from a sample collected on August 10, 2023, at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Why is BA.2.86 concerning and what are its possible effects?
BA.2.86 is concerning because it has a large number of mutations that could affect its transmissibility, virulence, and ability to evade immunity from previous infections or vaccinations. Some of these mutations are similar to those found in other variants of concern, such as Omicron, Delta, and Beta. For example, BA.2.86 has the E484K mutation, which has been linked to reduced antibody neutralization. It also has the N501Y mutation, which has been associated with increased infectivity.
However, it is too early to say how these mutations will affect the behavior of BA.2.86 in the real world. Laboratory experiments and epidemiological studies are needed to determine whether BA.2.86 is more contagious, more severe, or more resistant to vaccines than other variants. Some researchers have already started testing how well antibodies from vaccinated or recovered people can neutralize BA.2.86. The results are expected to be available soon.
How are authorities responding to BA.2.86 and what can people do to protect themselves?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated BA.2.86 as a variant under monitoring, meaning that it is not yet considered a variant of interest or a variant of concern, but requires further investigation and surveillance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies are also tracking the emergence and spread of BA.2.86 and collaborating with scientists to assess its potential impact on public health.
In the meantime, experts advise people to continue following the recommended prevention measures against COVID-19, such as wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, washing hands frequently, and getting tested if symptomatic. They also urge people to get vaccinated if they have not done so already, or get booster shots if they are eligible. Vaccines have been shown to provide strong protection against severe disease and death from COVID-19, even against variants like Omicron.