The new highly mutated coronavirus variant BA.2.86 has been detected in preliminary testing of wastewater in the United States, according to a risk assessment published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday. The CDC did not specify where the positive wastewater sample was collected, but said it was part of its National Wastewater Surveillance System’s routine monitoring. Globally, nine sequences of the new variant from human Covid-19 infections have been reported: three in Denmark, two in the United States, two in South Africa, one in the United Kingdom, and one in Israel. It has also been detected at low concentrations in Swiss wastewater.
The two US sequences originated from Michigan and Virginia patients. The Michigan resident is a senior who has never been hospitalized, per the state’s Department of Health. A woman who had recently returned from a vacation to Japan tested positive in Virginia and was identified through the CDC’s traveler-based genomic surveillance. The majority of sequences were obtained from patients with moderate symptoms. Nonetheless, the fact that this variant has been detected in multiple countries in a brief period of time “is evidence of international transmission,” the CDC stated on Wednesday.
A worldwide quest
This month, variant researchers identified BA.2.86 after it was discovered in Israel. It has more than 30 gene changes compared to BA.2, its closest ancestor, representing an evolutionary leap comparable to the one the virus made from Delta to Omicron in 2021 or the one between BA.2 and XBB.1.5, which circulated a year earlier, according to the CDC.
Dr. Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos National Labs, stated, “I believe, and I believe everyone agrees, that this is very likely a neutralization antibody escape mutant, which means our bodies will have a more difficult time protecting us from infection with this variant.” Korber has been diligently elucidating the structure of BA.2.86 so that other scientists can construct accurate models of the virus for testing in their laboratories, a process that is currently underway in universities and government facilities across the nation.
In a few weeks, we should have a better understanding of how our immunity will fare against the variant, she said. The fact that it has been detected in multiple countries, according to Korber, is cause for concern; however, it does not appear to be very prevalent at this time, so it remains to be seen whether it will outcompete the other variants in circulation and become dominant.
“We are in the earliest stages. The discovery occurred only a week ago. Therefore, it may not go very far because it is not competitive for other reasons,” said Korber.
Lots to discover about the new variant
BA.2.86 appears to have arisen recently in humans. Late in July, the earliest known samples of the new variant were collected. No one is certain where it originated, but scientists believe it likely spread in a region that does not submit sequences to GISAID, an open-access database where scientists share genetic information about the virus.
When Omicron was discovered, scientists were able to track its rapid expansion in South Africa and foresee its potential impact on other nations. As no one has observed the local proliferation of BA.2.86, nobody is certain of its behavior. BA.2.86 appears to have arisen recently in humans. Late in July, the earliest known samples of the new variant were collected.
This is the type of variant that most concerns public health officials because it has the potential to evade the protection of vaccines and previous infections.
The CDC states that it is unclear whether BA.2.86 will be capable of doing so.
“Virus samples are not yet widely available for more reliable laboratory testing of antibodies, and it is too early to determine the effects on immunity in the real world,” the new report states.
Michael Diamond, who researches emergent RNA viruses on a global scale at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, stated that there is still much to learn about this new variant.
“While we know it has been circulating for several weeks (based on lineage analysis and slight differences in sequence),” Diamond wrote in an email to CNN, “we do not yet know if it will emerge and become dominant.”
“Therefore, we are all in a bit of a waiting game,” he said.
The virus evolves, but defenses do not.
According to the CDC, the amount of genomic sequencing for the virus that causes Covid-19 has decreased over time, “meaning that more variants may emerge and spread undetected for longer periods of time,” the report states.
“It is also important to note that the current increase in hospitalizations in the United States is not likely attributable to the BA.2.86 variant,” the report states, though this assessment could change as scientists gather more data.
The CDC estimates that tests and antiviral medications will continue to be effective against this new virus based on preliminary analysis of its mutations.
The CDC stated, “At this time, we do not know how well this variant spreads, but we do know that it spreads similarly to other variants.” That means you can still take the following measures to safeguard yourself and others:
- Get the recommended Covid-19 vaccines;
- Stay home if you are unwell;
- Get tested for Covid-19 if necessary;
- Seek treatment if you have Covid-19 and are at high risk of becoming severely ill;
- If you choose to wear a mask, choose a high-quality one that drapes snugly over your nose and mouth.
- Maximize ventilation.
- Wash your hands frequently.
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