Highly mutated COVID variant BA.2.86 detected in 2 more countries: WHO

A highly mutated COVID variant named BA.2.86 has been identified in Switzerland and South Africa, along with Israel, Denmark, the US, and the UK, according to a leading official from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“We are in a very different phase (of the pandemic) than if this popped up in the first year,” said Dutch virologist and WHO adviser, Marion Koopmans.

This offshoot of Omicron carries over 35 mutations in crucial parts of the virus when compared to XBB.1.5, which was the predominant variant in most of 2023. This mutation count is roughly similar to the original Omicron variant that caused a surge in infections compared to its predecessor.

BA.2.86 was first detected in Denmark on July 24 when it infected a patient at risk of severe illness. Subsequently, it has been found in symptomatic patients, routine airport screenings, and wastewater samples in a few countries.

Also read: New COVID-19 variant BA.2.86 more infectious, capable of causing infection in vaccinated individuals: US CDC

A group of international scientists suggests that while monitoring BA.2.86 is essential, it’s unlikely to trigger a devastating wave of severe disease and fatalities, considering the global immunity built up through vaccinations and previous infections.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, stated that the number of cases is still relatively low. The fact that known cases aren’t linked suggests that it is already circulating more widely, especially given reduced global surveillance.

Researchers are currently assessing the effectiveness of updated COVID-19 vaccines against BA.2.86. Kerkhove noted that vaccines have been more successful in preventing severe illness and death compared to reinfection.

Dr. Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mentioned that the new variant was identified recently, and there have been nine cases as of August 23. It was also found in wastewater in Switzerland.

At present, current tests and treatments seem effective against BA.2.86, although the variant might have an increased capability to cause infection in vaccinated individuals and those with prior COVID infections. However, there’s no evidence yet suggesting it leads to more severe illness.

Also read: COVID-19: US CDC tracks new variant, Which countries are under the radar? WHO says ‘Variant Under Monitoring’

Experts emphasise taking the potential risk seriously and maintaining surveillance, even if not at the levels seen during the peak of the pandemic. Van Kerkhove stressed that governments must remain vigilant because the coronavirus still circulates, evolves, infects, and causes fatalities. He said, “”Governments cannot drop the ball.” 

In the US, there’s also concern about another COVID subvariant called EG.5, which has led to increased demand for tests in pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid.

The level of surveillance required to track the virus remains uncertain, and countries that have identified the new variant possess strong genomic sequencing capabilities. However, global data submission to databases like GISAID has significantly dropped, making sequencing more challenging.

Testing for COVID has also declined substantially worldwide, by about 90 percent from the peak. The US has seen a similar decrease in testing and sequencing.

Experts like Dr. Ashish Jha suggest that COVID surveillance and defences could be reactivated in the event of a major infection wave. While this would require resources and commitment, they believe it can be done effectively.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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Updated: 25 Aug 2023, 07:05 AM IST