The new COVID variant, BA.2.86, has been found in Switzerland, South Africa, Israel, Denmark, the U.S., and the U.K., confirmed by a top WHO official.
The Omicron offshoot has over 35 mutations in crucial parts of the virus, similar to the previous Omicron variant that led to a surge in infections, compared to the earlier XBB.1.5 dominant variant of 2023.
The variant, BA.2.86, was identified in Denmark on July 24 in a high-risk patient’s sequenced virus. It has been found in symptomatic patients, airport screening, and wastewater samples across a few countries. Although scientists advise monitoring, it is not expected to cause a severe wave of illness or death due to existing immunity from vaccination and previous infections.
“It is still low numbers,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at the WHO.
The absence of connections between known cases suggests wider circulation of the variant, especially with decreased global monitoring. Researchers are assessing the effectiveness of updated vaccines against BA.2.86. Kerkhove highlighted vaccines’ efficacy in preventing severe outcomes compared to re-infections.
“We are in a very different phase (of the pandemic) than if this popped up in the first year,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who advises the WHO.
Dr Nirav Shah from the CDC reported discovering the variant last week. After consultations with scientists, a risk assessment was released on Wednesday. Nine cases have been identified by August 23, with The variant also detected in Swiss wastewater.
Current tests and treatments are effective against BA.2.86. The variant could infect vaccinated and previously infected individuals more, but severe illness evidence is lacking. Vigilance remains crucial, requiring ongoing surveillance.