Health organizations worldwide, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States, are closely monitoring a newly mutated high-concern virus strain responsible for COVID-19.
As of late July, six cases across four countries have been identified. Scientists are closely studying the new lineage, designated as BA.2.86, due to its 36 distinct mutations setting it apart from the currently dominant XBB.1.5 variant.
Although there is currently no evidence suggesting that BA.2.86 spreads more rapidly or causes more severe illness than its predecessors, experts remain vigilant about its potential impact.
Infections and hospitalizations related to COVID-19 have surged in the United States, Europe, and Asia, with recent months seeing an increase in cases associated with the EG.5 “Eris” subvariant, a descendant of the Omicron lineage that first emerged in November 2021.
Over the past few days, health authorities have documented single cases of BA.2.86 in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, as well as three cases in Denmark.
D S. Wesley Long, the Director of Medical Microbiology Diagnostics at Houston Methodist Hospital, explains that BA.2.86 originates from an “early branch” of the coronavirus, making it distinct from the variants targeted by current vaccines.
Its potential to compete with other virus strains or evade immunity developed from prior infections or vaccinations remains uncertain.
However, the global decrease in patient testing and genomic analysis efforts for new COVID-19 cases raises concerns about accurately tracking the BA.2.86 variant.
Dr Eric Topol, a genomics expert and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, suggests that the numerous mutations in BA.2.86 significantly differentiate it structurally from previous variants. The main question at hand is whether BA.2.86 will prove to be highly transmissible.
While emergency room visits and hospitalizations for COVID-19 remain relatively low in the US, they have increased since early July, according to CDC data.
However, doctors have noted that patients seen in recent weeks, attributed to the Eris variant’s spread, have not exhibited the severity observed during earlier pandemic waves.
Dr Topol emphasizes that a wider spread of BA.2.86 could potentially lead to more illnesses and deaths among vulnerable populations. It remains too early to determine whether BA.2.86 will cause more severe disease.
Health organizations and scientists continue to closely monitor its trajectory and characteristics to better understand its implications for global public health.
As the situation evolves, health authorities worldwide are urging caution, ongoing vigilance, and adherence to preventive measures to mitigate the potential impact of this new variant.