Tracking the BA.2.86, a new lineage of COVID-19 virus

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COVID-19 virus cells in blood under the microscope.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have their radar fixed on BA.2.86, a new lineage of the virus causing COVID-19 with 36 distinguishing mutations from the dominant XBB.1.5 variant.

 

Since late July, this new lineage has popped up in four countries, tallying up to six cases. The recent spots on the map for BA.2.86 include individual cases in the U.S., UK, Israel, and three cases reported in Denmark.

Understanding BA.2.86

Dr. S. Wesley Long, heading diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital, points out that BA.2.86 has its roots in an earlier branch of the coronavirus. Hence, it isn’t akin to the variants that current vaccines target. While the future of this lineage’s dominance and its potential to dodge immune responses remains uncertain, the rapid identification of new cases does raise eyebrows.

Dr. Eric Topol, an expert in genomics and director at the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, notes BA.2.86’s vast mutation array makes it significantly structurally distinct from its predecessors. The burning question, however, is its transmissibility quotient.

Effects of the New Variant on Health

COVID-19 infections have surged in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, primarily attributed to the EG.5 “Eris” subvariant of Omicron lineage. Though hospitalisations have observed an upward curve since July, the Eris subvariant hasn’t shown increased severity in patients compared to prior pandemic waves. Topol warns that if BA.2.86 becomes more widespread, we may see increased morbidity and mortality in susceptible groups. As of now, it remains ambiguous whether BA.2.86 is synonymous with severe illness.

According to the CDC, “Based on the available evidence, we do not yet know what risks, if any, (BA.2.86) may pose to the public’s health beyond what has been seen with other currently circulating lineages.”

Vaccine’s Response to the New Variants

With the pandemic’s intensity waning, many individuals might be approaching or have crossed a year since their last vaccination or infection. However, Dr. Long reiterates that vaccines continue to be a robust shield against disease and mortality.

Currently, the updated booster shots are designed to focus on the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5. Moderna’s preliminary trials seem promising against the Eris and its kin, the Fornax variant, making inroads into the U.S. On the other hand, Pfizer Inc’s revamped COVID-19 vaccine has showcased neutralising activity against Eris in mice studies.

In these dynamic times, while scientists grapple with the emerging lineages, the age-old advice of the CDC remains intact: protect yourself from COVID using the proven methods.

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