In recent weeks, a highly mutated variant of a coronavirus known as BA.2.86 has been detected in many countries on three continents. It is not yet clear whether this new variant will pose a significant global threat, but scientists are closely monitoring its development and potential impact on public health.
Like the emergence of the Omicron variant in late 2021, the detection of BA.2.86 has raised concerns among experts. This variant turned out to be rare but significantly different from other circulating variants, with numerous changes in the spike protein, a key target of the immune system’s response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is reported in the journal Nature
Adam Laurance, a virologist and infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan, compares the situation to a sense of “déjà vu.” He says “it’s like everything is happening all over again.” Lauring’s lab has identified one person infected with the BA.2.86 virus, underscoring the need for further study of the variant.
As of August 21, BA.2.86 has been linked to six cases in four countries: Israel, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified BA.2.86 as a variant under surveillance, and experts expect more cases to emerge in the coming weeks.
BA.2.86 is thought to have originated from an Omicron sub-variant called BA.2, which caused a significant spike in cases earlier this year. However, the BA.2.86 protein-ship has 34 changes from BA.2, indicating a possible origin from a chronic infection.
Scientists are closely monitoring BA.2.86 because of its significant difference from other coronavirus variants. Unlike previous variants, which followed a predictable evolutionary path after acquiring key mutations, BA.2.86 appears to be an outlier. Similarities with early pandemic variants such as Alpha and Delta, as well as the unexpected nature of Omicron’s emergence, have caused experts to pay close attention to BA.2.86.
Jesse Bloom, an expert in the evolutionary biology of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, emphasizes the importance of monitoring BA.2.86. He notes that many of the changes in this variant occur in regions of the spike protein that are targeted by neutralizing antibodies, potentially allowing this variant to bypass the immune response caused by previous infections and vaccinations.
While scientists remain cautiously optimistic that BA.2.86 will not have the same impact as Omicron, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions. Global immunity built up through successive waves of COVID-19 and vaccination booster campaigns may provide some level of protection against this new variant. However, further research is needed to fully understand BA.2.86 and its potential public health implications.