The latest COVID-19 strain is being described as reminiscent of the early days of omicron.
It’s yet not clear whether the emergence of the highly mutated coronavirus variant labeled BA.2.86 means there could be a repeat of last year’s record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases thanks to omicron.
But scientists are paying attention.
“There’s a little bit of déjà vu all over again,” Adam Lauring, a virologist and infectious-disease physician at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told the science journal Nature this week.
Former White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha posted recently that BA.2.86 “has some experts concerned. Why? Because it has more than 30+ additional mutations on spike protein compared to circulating variants.”
Count Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, among those who are keeping close watch on what the variant is doing.
“That’s an alarming number of mutations to have all of a sudden arise,” Oakeson said, adding he’s concerned. “That’s kind of comparable to what we saw in omicron, when it first arose. We know what omicron did in terms of case counts and hospitalizations.”
In contrast, the “Eris” variant that currently makes up the largest percentage of COVID-19 cases in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is said to have only a single notable mutation.
That variant, officially known as EG.5, accounted for an estimated 20.6% of cases nationwide for the week ending Aug. 19. The next most common variant, called “Fornax,” makes up about 13% of cases, CDC projections show.
According to Nature, the emergence of the latest variant, BA.2.86, “is reminiscent of the early days of the Omicron variant in late 2021, when scientists in southern Africa noticed a weird-looking lineage that quickly went global.”
As of Monday, there had been six cases worldwide linked to BA.2.86, in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and Denmark, the journal reported. By midday Tuesday, two new cases in South Africa and another in the U.S. had been added to the list.
“Almost certainly there are going to be other cases that will start popping up,” said Lauring, whose Michigan laboratory has already identified a person infected with BA.2.86. The second U.S. case was seen in Virginia.
So far, the new variant hasn’t been detected in Utah, Oakeson said. The state lab is sequencing samples weekly that are collected from sewage treatment plants located throughout Utah as well as from positive tests for COVID-19.
“It’s a matter of time. If it does take off and spread, it will end up in Utah. Is that tomorrow? Is that next month, next week? I can’t really say right now. It’s hard to predict,” Utah’s chief scientist said, adding, “it is something we want to keep an eye on.”
That the small but increasing number of cases is spread across multiple countries is “not a good sign,” Oakeson said. “It’s moving fast.” He said the case in Virginia was someone who had recently traveled overseas.
Still, Nature said most scientists don’t anticipate BA.2.86 will hit as hard as omicron.
“There’s good reason to think it won’t be like the omicron wave, but it’s early days,” Lauring said.
Jha, now a public-health researcher at Brown University in Rhode Island, posted more data is needed but he suspects the new variant may be more transmissible, likely won’t cause more severe disease and vaccines, tests and treatments will continue to work.
He posted, too, that even though BA.2.86 “is a little more out of left field” than other recent variants, it’s not really a surprise. It’s key, he said, to track emerging variants “with strong surveillance.”
Oakeson said Utah “is in a good position to do that,” with the state already routinely monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 as well as other indicators of spread, including emergency room visits.
“This is going to keep happening. ... Viruses mutate. This is what they do,” he said, adding the last time there were so many mutations at once to the coronavirus, “it was a really significant change and caused a lot of illness. We just want to make sure we’re prepared.”