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What Is The Identity And Significance Of The BA.2.86 Variant In Relation To The Global COVID-19 Situation?

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BA.2.86

(CTN NEWS) – Scientists are in a race to determine whether a highly mutated coronavirus variant, which has emerged on three continents, will pose a significant global threat or turn out to be much less concerning than anticipated.

The variant, designated as BA.2.86, was identified by multiple laboratories last week. While this lineage appears to be extremely uncommon, it stands out due to its substantial differences from other currently circulating variants.

Notably, it carries numerous alterations to its spike protein, a critical target for the body’s immune response against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For many researchers, the appearance of BA.2.86 brings back memories of the early stages of the Omicron variant in late 2021. During that time, scientists in southern Africa noticed a distinct lineage that swiftly gained global attention.

“There’s a sense of déjà vu here,” remarks Adam Lauring, a virologist and infectious-disease expert from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His research group identified an individual infected with the BA.2.86 variant.

The progression of successive COVID-19 waves and the ongoing distribution of booster vaccines have resulted in a higher and more widespread global immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

Consequently, most experts do not anticipate BA.2.86 to have the same magnitude of impact as the Omicron wave experienced previously.

Nonetheless, Lauring emphasizes that it’s still early to draw definitive conclusions. “While there are valid reasons to believe that the impact won’t mirror the Omicron wave, it’s important to exercise caution in these initial stages,” he adds.

Nature examines the current knowledge surrounding the BA.2.86 variant and the critical inquiries that scientists aim to address.

BA.2.86 Variant: Emerging Cases and Genetic Changes

As of August 21st, the variant had been associated with six cases across four countries: Israel, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, has classified BA.2.86 as a monitored variant.

“There will almost certainly be additional cases that will begin to surface,” commented Lauring.

The lineage appears to be descended from an Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, which led to significant increases in cases in early 2022.

However, the spike protein of BA.2.86, the molecule utilized by SARS-CoV-2 to enter cells, has undergone 34 alterations compared to BA.2.

A substantial number of spike mutations have been observed in individuals with prolonged SARS-CoV-2 infections, and it is plausible that BA.2.86 also emerged from such chronic infection.

This perspective comes from Jesse Bloom, a viral evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington.

BA.2.861

Why Scientists Are Vigilantly Tracking the BA.2.86 Variant

Following the emergence of Omicron, the evolutionary trajectory of SARS-CoV-2 took on a somewhat predictable pattern: new variants arose from existing lineages by acquiring a few critical mutations that facilitated their spread.

In contrast, BA.2.86 stands out dramatically from other prevalent coronavirus variants, sharing similarities with Omicron as well as early pandemic strains like Alpha and Delta.

Ashish Jha, a public-health researcher at Brown University and former White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, remarks, “Just as Omicron caught us off guard, BA.2.86 has surprised us. There’s enough here to warrant our full attention.”

Many of the alterations in BA.2.86 are concentrated in regions of the spike protein that are targeted by the body’s potent infection-neutralizing antibodies.

According to a preliminary analysis by Bloom, a viral evolutionary biologist, this suggests that the variant might have the capability to evade some of the neutralizing antibodies generated by prior infections and vaccine booster shots.

Geographical distribution is another factor that underscores BA.2.86‘s significance. The reported cases do not appear to be connected, including three infections found in different parts of Denmark.

This indicates that the variant may already be spread widely, as Bloom points out, “It must have undergone a considerable level of transmission.”

The UK Health Security Agency noted a case in an individual with no recent travel history, implying a potential level of community transmission within the UK.

What Are Researchers Seeking to Discover?

Scientific laboratories across the globe are currently examining patient samples and even wastewater to gain insight into the prevalence of BA.2.86. “Our goal is to comprehend the extent of this lineage’s presence,” explains Lauring.

If the current trickle of confirmed cases transforms into a surge, it could indicate that the variant has the capacity to rival other circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the more prevalent EG.5 lineage, potentially leading to a global upswing in infections.

Virology laboratories in Denmark and the United Kingdom are actively attempting to isolate BA.2.86 from patient samples.

This investigative work, alongside studies involving safe SARS-CoV-2 models known as pseudoviruses, will enable researchers to assess the variant’s ability to circumvent neutralizing antibodies generated by past infections and vaccines.

Of particular interest to Bloom is determining the extent to which BA.2.86 can evade neutralizing antibodies provoked by a recent encounter with the XBB.1.5 variant.

This is crucial since the latest COVID-19 booster vaccines are developed based on the spike sequence of that variant. “Should something like [BA.2.86] become prevalent, considerations about updating the vaccine would likely arise,” highlights Bloom.

Should the Public Be Concerned About BA.2.86?

“I want to reassure everyone that there’s no need for alarm,” emphasizes Bloom. “The most probable scenario is that this variant will fade away, and within a month, hardly anyone, except for experts like me, will even recall its existence.”

Even in the event that BA.2.86 becomes widespread and demonstrates an ability to evade neutralizing antibodies — a likelihood suggested by its unique spike mutations — Bloom asserts that various forms of immunity are likely to safeguard most individuals from experiencing severe illness if they contract the virus.

Jha underscores the importance of closely monitoring the variant. However, he believes that the chances of BA.2.86 being more severe than existing variants or causing disruptions comparable to the initial Omicron waves are “extremely low,” owing to the presence of widespread immunity.

The unexpected emergence of BA.2.86 highlights that SARS-CoV-2 still has hidden attributes that researchers are eager to comprehend. “We’ll have to wait and see if its impact goes beyond that in terms of public health,” remarks Lauring.

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