In a concerted effort to safeguard global health, international health officials are closely monitoring the emergence and spread of a new version of COVID-19, named BA.2.86. This variant has already been identified in several countries, including the United States, Switzerland, South Africa, Israel, Denmark, and Britain, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a heightened alert.
Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently addressed the press, emphasizing that the ongoing appearance of new COVID-19 variants underscores the persistent threat posed by the virus worldwide. While current data indicates a decline in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Tedros pointed out that some countries are witnessing an increase in hospitalizations, admissions to intensive care units (ICUs), and fatalities, signaling that the battle against COVID-19 is far from over.
Maria Van Kerkhove, a key figure in the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, provided insight into the BA.2.86 variant. As of the last week, only approximately 10 cases of this variant have been documented globally. However, concern is mounting due to the variant’s possession of over 30 genetic mutations. In response, the WHO is intensifying efforts to monitor the variant’s movements, including the collection of wastewater samples from various cities to track the virus’s spread rate and severity. Van Kerkhove emphasized that governments must remain vigilant and committed to managing the ongoing threat.
Covid-19 Variant BA.2.86:
The BA.2.86 variant originated from the Omicron variant, which had been circulating in the U.S. since at least the previous year and was first identified in Denmark on July 24th.
Notably, international scientists have expressed cautious optimism, suggesting that BA.2.86 is unlikely to trigger a harmful wave of infections. This optimism stems from the fact that a significant portion of the global population has built immunity to COVID-19 through vaccinations or previous infections.
Currently, scientists are conducting studies to assess the effectiveness of newly developed COVID-19 vaccines against BA.2.86. Historically, vaccines have demonstrated better efficacy in preventing severe illness and death compared to blocking reinfections. In the United States, health officials have announced plans to release the latest COVID-19 vaccines in September.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently completed a risk assessment report on the new variant. The report suggests that BA.2.86 may have the potential to infect both vaccinated individuals and those who have previously had COVID-19. However, it underscores that there is currently no evidence to suggest that this variant causes more severe illness than earlier ones.
Despite these developments, the WHO has observed a concerning trend: COVID-19 testing worldwide has decreased by a staggering 90 percent from the peak of the pandemic. Similar declines in testing rates and genetic sequencing have been observed in the U.S., according to Dr. Ashish Jha, who served as the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator until June 2023. However, Dr. Jha emphasized that data from various sources, including hospitalizations, emergency room visits, deaths, wastewater testing, and sequencing efforts, have provided valuable insights into the current spread of the virus.
Furthermore, reports of new cases of the BA.2.86 variant are emerging in the United States. A genome sequencing team at Houston Methodist Hospital confirmed the first case in Texas, while the Ohio Department of Health reported one case in Ohio. These states join Michigan, New York, and Virginia in detecting the variant, as indicated by health officials and the global genome sequencing database GISAID.
The high number of mutations, particularly more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to and infect cells, has raised concerns among public health experts worldwide. While the situation continues to evolve, international health organizations, governments, and researchers are collaborating to understand and respond to the threat posed by the BA.2.86 variant, emphasizing the importance of vaccination, testing, and ongoing vigilance to mitigate its impact on public health.