Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja with agency report
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it is closely monitoring BA.2.86, a new variant of COVID-19, detected in Israel, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
In a bulletin weekend, WHO said it is classifying the new version of COVID-19 as a variant under monitoring (VUM) due to the large number of spike gene mutations it carries.
“On 17 August 2023, WHO designated a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, that has been assigned the scientific name (Pango- lineage designation) BA.2.86 as a variant under monitoring (VUM) due to the large number (>30) of spike gene mutations it carries,” the bulletin reads.
“Currently, there are only four known sequences of this variant reported from two countries in the European region and one country in the Region of the Americas with no known associated epidemiological connections,” WHO explained.
The WHO said the potential impact of the BA.2.86 mutations is not known at the moment, adding that it is undergoing careful assessment.
The organisation said it would continue to call for better surveillance, sequencing, and reporting of COVID-19 as the virus continues to circulate and evolve.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) said it was tracking the lineage of the virus.
“CDC is tracking a new lineage of the virus that causes COVID-19. This lineage is named BA.2.86, and has been detected in the United States, Denmark, and Israel,” the post reads.
“CDC is gathering more information and will share more about this lineage as we learn it,” it added.
According to the WHO, as of August 13, there were more than 769 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 6.9 million deaths worldwide. The toll is expected to be higher because many cases went undetected.
WHO however added that it is too early to say whether the variant will be more dangerous than the currently circulating strains of the virus.
The UN agency said more data is needed to understand the threat BA.2.86 might pose, but had accelerated the classification due to its sheer number of changes.
The strain’s dozens of genetic changes — an evolutionary jump on par with the emergence of the original Omicron variant in 2021 — have raised eyebrows among virologists as cases have started to crop up around the world. Its mutations include some changes in key parts of the virus that could help it better dodge the body’s immunity from prior infections or vaccination.
“Deep mutational scanning indicates BA.2.86 variant will have equal or greater escape than XBB.1.5 from antibodies elicited by pre-Omicron and first-generation Omicron variants,” Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center, said in a slide deck published Thursday. The first US case of BA.2.86 was reported by a lab at the University of Michigan. According to records attached to the sequence uploaded to GISAID, a global virus database, the variant was sequenced from a sample collected by the university’s clinical microbiology lab during “baseline surveillance.”
It is unclear whether the samples were collected from a hospitalised patient in the health system run by the university or from another source. A spokesperson for the University of Michigan Medical School declined to comment on the possible origin of the sequence, deferring to Michigan’s state health department. A spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services was not able to immediately answer a request for comment.
Dr. Adam Lauring, a University of Michigan professor who runs the lab that sequenced the case, said Friday that they sequence cases from a large area in Michigan for the state health department and CDC. He declined to share additional details about the variant infection, which he said is now being investigated by health authorities.
Lauring’s lab sequences cases from both hospitalised and non-hospitalized patients, he told CBS News in an email.
In Denmark, health authorities said they are currently working to culture the virus, a key step towards further assessing the threat posed by the highly mutated strain. Three cases have been spotted there, the Statens Serum Institute said. None had prior contact with each other and all experienced common COVID-19 symptoms.
Researchers in the UK have also identified at least one case, Luke Blagdon Snell, a researcher at Kings College London, said Friday. The patient was hospitalized and likely acquired the infection locally.
For now, experts said BA.2.86 will still need to show it can outcompete other fast-spreading descendants of the XBB Omicron variant already on the rise around the world to be more than a “scientific curiosity.”