The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are tracking a newly identified, highly mutated strain of COVID experts warn could be the next big leap in viral evolution—if the variant takes off says Fortune Well.
Global Monitoring of BA.2.86
TWHO and CDC watchful as BA.2.86, previously known as BA.X or “Pirola,” gains attention as a monitored variant, while more alarming “variants of interest” like EG.5, XBB.1.5, and XBB.1.16 warrant greater concern; BA.2.86 detected in the US, Michigan, and initially reported in Israel and Denmark.
In the UK, the BA.2.86 variant prompts assessment by the HSA after detection; the patient affected is elderly and hospitalized. Unlike typical Omicron variants, BA.2.86 seems to have evolved from earlier strains like BA.2 or even the original B.1.1.529, standing out with notable differences.
Divergence of 30+ mutations sets it apart, potentially enhancing immune evasion and cell infectivity, as stated by Jesse Bloom, a prominent variant tracker; these differences are comparable to the gap between the original Wuhan strain and the first Omicron.
The likelihood of BA.2.86 being assigned a Greek letter, possibly “Pi,” by the WHO is considerable due to its significant divergence.
“What sets this one apart from the many other Omicron subvariants is that it exhibits a large number of mutations … far more than we usually see,” Ryan Gregory, a biology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, told Fortune.
“It’s fairly likely it’s going undetected in some other countries,” Gregory said.
The fact that the cases are geographically dispersed, with no travel history, “suggests there is established international transmission” that may have occurred only recently, the U.K. HSA said in its risk assessment.
Though the highly mutated variant is “quite divergent” from other known circulating strains, “it’s unclear whether it will have a significant effect on the number of severe cases or our management/prevention strategies,” he told Fortune.
BA.2.86’s unusual origins
- BA.2.86 likely developed in an immunocompromised patient with a long-term infection, multiple experts say.
- But variants from immunocompromised patients rarely spread.
- That’s why Hisner was taken aback when he spotted the variant—first identified by tracker Shay Fleishon, with Israel’s Ministry of Health, and his team, in Israel in Europe.
- Hisner wasn’t sure when more sequences would appear, “but I figured we would see at least a few eventually,” he said.
BA.2.86 Vs Viral Rivals
Three main questions remain: how the variant’s mutations will affect symptoms and severity, if it will take off anywhere, and how new XBB.1.5 COVID vaccines—slated for U.S. release in September—might hold up.
“Even if a highly mutated new variant like BA.2.86 starts to spread, we will be in a far better place than we were in 2020 and 2021, since most people have some immunity” to COVID, he recently wrote.
All scenarios are possible. But even if BA.2.86 were to take off in the U.S. or worldwide, “I’d be very surprised if things get as bad as they did in that first winter, or during the Delta era or that first BA.1 wave” in late 2021 and early 2022, Hisner said.
U.S. COVID Deaths
CDC’s recent US COVID data revealed ongoing hospitalization increase by 14% (July 30-Aug. 5), while deaths rose by 8% (Aug. 6-12). Leading variants “Eris” EG.5 (20%) and “Fornax” FL.1.5.1 (13%) dominate sequenced domestic cases.
Globally, reported COVID cases were up 63% from mid-July through mid-August compared to the month prior, the WHO said Thursday in a situation report. It cautioned that “reported cases do not accurately represent infection rates due to the reduction in testing and reporting globally.”
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Source: Fortune Well