New COVID Variant BA.2.86: Initial Lab Results Reassuring, Less Threatening Than Feared

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Global scientific community is accelerating laboratory tests to comprehend the highly mutated BA.2.86 variant of the COVID-19 virus. Initial findings are providing a measure of relief, according to experts.

Prominent research groups in Sweden and China have disclosed their findings with more results anticipated soon from the United States. The early picture of BA.2.86 paints it as less threatening, decidedly more of a paper tiger as opposed to the beast it was initially feared to be. Yet, these perceptions could transform as more data emerges.

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Known colloquially as Pirola, BA.2.86 has captured global attention due to its radical divergence from any other variants of the Coronavirus noticed so far. The new lineage exhibits over 30 changes to its spike protein compared to both its closest precursor, BA.2, and the recently circulating XBB.1.5 lineage. This is an evolutionary leap comparable to the emergence of the original Omicron variant, BA.1, around two years ago.

During the reign of Omicron, the rates of infections and hospitalizations peaked in the United States, along with the second highest peak of weekly deaths. This was a stark reminder of how even a more benign version of the virus can pose a serious threat if it leads to a mass infection wave across the populace, necessitating adjustments of the vaccines. Omicron swiftly superseded other COVID-19 variants, birthing its own derivatives, which we continue to grapple with.

The White House, concerned about another Omicron-level catastrophe, held confidential opinion polls among a group of experts concerning the probability of a similar event within the next two years. Most experts estimated a chance between 10 to 20%. Consequently, when BA.2.86 emerged in late July, casting similarities to Omicron, researchers sprang to action.

So far, only about three dozen sequences from infected patients have surfaced in a global repository in the last month. Despite reduced genetic surveillance, experts believe if BA.2.86 was proving potent, it would be evident. Experts have stated that currently, BA.2.86 does not mirror an Omicron-level event.

Scientific community is currently engaged in lab experiments that are meant to aid in understanding our immune systems and the effectiveness of our current vaccines against the BA.2.86 family.

Early experimental results offer some reassurance. Chinese researchers used the blood of vaccinated mice and recently infected individuals to determine that BA.2.86 does look considerably different from previous versions of the virus and can bypass elements of our immunity.

However, the BA.2.86 has been found to be around 60% less infectious than XBB.1.5 viruses, which may explain its lower presence despite being found in multiple countries.

Further experiments conducted by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden indicated that antibodies from recent samples were more effective in combating BA.2.86.

While more data is required to fully understand BA.2.86, these preliminary studies, despite their limitations, have provided some encouragement for the experts.

The Variant Technical Group at the UK’s Health Security Agency has determined that BA.2.86 does not meet their classification for a ‘variant of concern’, as there’s no evidence pointing towards a harmful alteration in its biological properties or growth rate as compared to currently prevalent variants.

While more insights into BA.2.86 are expected in the upcoming weeks, the global community continues to hold its breath, waiting for the new variant to reveal its true potential.