Global scientists are ardently advancing lab experiments in an attempt to decipher the cryptic, significantly transformed BA.2.86 variant of the virus responsible for COVID-19. Promising preliminary findings are beginning to alleviate fears, according to leading experts.
Two international groups, one based in China and the other in Sweden, have released their early results. Further data from the U.S. is anticipated early this week. Emerging results thus far portray BA.2.86 as a less threatening entity than initially feared, although the overall impression could be subject to change as additional results emerge.
BA.2.86, colloquially known as Pirola, grabbed global attention due to its audacious divergence from previously seen coronavirus variants. Boasting over 30 modifications to its spike protein in comparison to its closest predecessor, BA.2 and the recently circulating XBB.1.5 lineage, it represents a remarkable evolutionary advancement comparable to the original Omicron variant, BA.1’s introduction almost two years prior.
Recall that during the Omicron surge, it was not unusual for infections and hospitalizations to reach unprecedented levels, prompting a need to upgrade our vaccines. Omicron quickly surpassed other COVID-19 strains and began producing its derivatives, which we still grapple with. This highlighted the virus’s adaptability and our vulnerabilities in the face of such vast shifts.
The term “second coming of Omicron” was born out of trepidation surrounding a recurrence of an Omicron-like event. Its birth was expedited by the emergence of BA.2.86, which appeared in late July, resounding ominously with the initial Omicron events. However, it has spread marginally so far.
The country with the largest number of reported sequences so far is Denmark. Experts are keenly monitoring developments there for possible insights. Current data indicates that BA.2.86 is not a significant threat presently and if it were, it would be apparent, given even diminished levels of genetic surveillance.
Presently, scientific pursuit to comprehend BA.2.86 better is underway. Researchers are using copies of the virus isolated from patients and models of its spike protein grafted onto other viruses to better understand how our immune system and vaccines would respond to the BA.2.86 strain.
Initial studies by Chinese and Swedish researchers offer a ray of hope though they are fraught with restrictions. Essentially, researchers have been examining the effects of pseudoviruses (which are models of what the BA.2.86 virus looks like) rather than the virus itself. The immunity reactions of study subjects — blood donors in China and Sweden — may not perfectly represent the diverse global population impacted by various strains and vaccinated differently.
Despite these limitations, the initial findings have generally incited optimism among experts, evoking anticipation for further results in the days to come.
The UK’s Health Security Agency’s Variant Technical Group convened last week to discuss whether BA.2.86 should be re-categorized from a ‘variant under monitoring’ to a ‘variant of concern.’ They concluded that the BA.2.86 didn’t meet the criteria for a variant of concern. They highlighted the lack of evidence that its growth rate would surpass currently circulating variants.
The team is currently growing two samples of the virus in the UK, and the data from those lab experiments are projected to arrive in 1-2 weeks. As they wait for these results, the rest of the world also anticipates BA.2.86’s next move.