By Deena Beasley and Nancy Lapid
(Reuters) – The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are tracking a new, highly mutated line of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Since the end of July, six cases have been detected in four countries. Scientists are keeping an eye on the new lineage, dubbed BA.2.86, as it has 36 mutations that distinguish it from the currently dominant XBB.1.5 variant.
So far, there is no evidence that BA.2.86 spreads faster or becomes more seriously ill than previous versions. The CDC said its advice to protect yourself from COVID remains the same.
What’s new about COVID?
COVID infections and hospitalizations are on the rise in the US, Europe and Asia, with more cases attributed to the EG.5 “Eris” subvariant in recent months, a descendant of the Omicron lineage that originally emerged in November 2021.
In recent days, public health authorities have each documented one case of BA.2.86 in the United States, the UK and Israel, and three cases in Denmark.
What do scientists say about BA.2.86?
BA.2.86 stems from an “earlier branch” of the coronavirus, so it differs from the variant targeted by current vaccines, Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital.
He said it remains to be seen whether BA.2.86 will be able to defeat other strains of the virus or have any advantage in escaping immune responses from previous infection or vaccination.
But many countries have drastically reduced patient testing and their efforts to analyze the genomes of the viruses that cause new COVID cases. In that situation, BA.2.86’s trajectory “doesn’t look good at this point” given the rate at which new cases are being identified, said Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.
The many mutations make BA.2.86 “radically different in structure” compared to previous variants, Topol said.
The main question, he added, is whether BA.2.86 will prove highly transferable.
Do the new variants make people sicker?
U.S. emergency room visits and hospitalizations for COVID remain low but have been rising since early July, according to data on the CDC website. So far, however, doctors have reported that patients seen in recent weeks, as the Eris variant spread, are not as sick as those they treated during previous waves of the pandemic.
A wider spread of BA.2.86 would likely cause more illness and death in vulnerable populations, Topol said.
It is too early to know whether BA.2.86 will cause more serious illness.
“Based on the available evidence, we do not yet know what risks, if any, (BA.2.86) may pose to public health beyond what has been seen with other genera currently circulating,” said a CDC spokesperson.
Will vaccines protect against new variants?
As the pandemic eases, it may be a year or more since many people were previously infected or vaccinated against COVID.
“The vaccine will still give you a great defense against illness and death,” Long said.
Updated COVID booster shots now in development are designed to target the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5.
Moderna said preliminary research data suggests the latest version of the vaccine shows promise against Eris and a related variant called Fornax, which is beginning to circulate in the US.
Pfizer Inc has said that its updated COVID-19 injection showed neutralizing activity against the Eris subvariant in a study conducted on mice.
(Reporting by Deena Beasley and Nancy Lapid; editing by David Gregorio)