New Variant BA.2.86: Initial Studies Portray Less Potency, Await Further Data


Global scientists are fervently conducting lab experiments in an effort to gain a better understanding of the considerably mutated BA.2.86 variant of the virus that leads to COVID-19. Initial results show a semblance of reassurance, experts suggest.

Two groups—one based in China, the other in Sweden—have publicly presented their findings. More results from the United States are projected as early as next week. Presently, preliminary results portray BA.2.86 more as an intimidating shadow rather than the formidable threat it initially seemed. Yet, this image stands the chance of being reformed as further results pour in.

BA.2.86, commonly referred to as Pirola, seized global focus as it starkly contrasts every other known variants of the coronavirus. This recent lineage possesses over 30 alterations to its spike protein, pushing it farther from its closest ancestor, BA.2, as well the recently circulating XBB.1.5 lineage. This evolutionary leap mirrors the one made by the original Omicron variant, BA.1, upon its first emergence— a memory that remains fresh in everyone’s mind.

During the Omicron wave, the United States witnessed the zenith of infections and hospitalizations since the inception of the pandemic. The vaccines required several updates as Omicron rapidly superseded other variants, birthing its own subvariants—a resounding lesson in the virus’s agility and the fragility of our defenses against such monumental shifts.

The fear of another Omicron-scale incident was palpable enough to put the White House on edge. Earlier this year, it polled approximately a dozen experts regarding the likelihood of a similar event within the next two years. Most experts estimated the probability between 10 and 20%.

Therefore, when BA.2.86 arrived on the scene in late July, resonating with Omicron’s ghost, variant trackers were understandably alarmed. Meanwhile, research ensued to learn more about the new lineage which has now reached no less than 11 countries, including the United States.

The most sequences reported so far emerge from Denmark, drawing experts’ attention as they keep a close watch for clues regarding its growth. However, only about three dozen sequences from an equal number of infected patients have come to light in a global repository over the last month. Experts believe that if BA.2.86 were overwhelming in its potency, the signs would have been apparent by now.

Scientific evidence to date suggests that BA.2.86 is not another Omicron in the making. Currently, scientists are in the midst of conducting experiments to help us understand more about how well our immune systems and vaccines will recognize and defend against viruses in the BA.2.86 family.

Guiyu Wang, Assistant Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Florida, cautioned that it’s too early to draw conclusions. To better understand the situation, we’ll still likely have to wait for the final results from the best available experiments, conducted in labs that are able to grow live cultures of the new variant.

In China, the initial series of experiments utilized the blood of both vaccinated mice and humans who were recently infected, suggesting that BA.2.86 indeed presents distinct challenges to our immune systems compared to previous versions of the virus.

In Sweden, a recent set of experiments pitted BA.2.86 against antibodies in the late-2022 blood samples. The antibodies in these samples were less effective against BA.2.86, but they demonstrated improved impact on blood samples drawn from donors just a week ago.

While these studies offer valuable information, they also have limitations. They tested pseudoviruses, essentially models of the BA.2.86 virus, and did not involve the actual virus. They also involved a modest number of samples taken from blood donors in China and Sweden, which might not reflect the inefficiencies seen in people from the U.S.

However, experts welcome these early results and are keen on obtaining further data in the upcoming days.

The U.K’s Health Security Agency’s Variant Technical Group subsequently met to deliberate on whether BA.2.86 should be upgraded from a “variant under monitoring” to a “variant of concern.” Last Friday, the group concluded that BA.2.86 does not match the criteria of a variant of concern since it does not display any changes that could drastically harm its biological properties or suggest it could outpace the currently-circulating variants.

As lab experiments with two samples of the virus continue in the UK, scientists around the world—like everyone else—are anticipating how BA.2.86’s traits will eventually reveal themselves.


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