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New information on the BA.2.86 COVID variant


As I’ve written previously, the new BA.2.86 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, was starting to circulate during the late summer. Despite it appearing to be able to avoid previous vaccines or natural immunity, it did not cause any significant increases in infections, so it more or less fell off of the CDC’s radar for new COVID-19 variants and sub-variants.

Unfortunately, the BA.2.86 COVID-19 variant is back on the CDC’s radar. This article will review the BA.2.86 variant and what the CDC is observing. There is not much reason to panic at this time, but the CDC and other public health agencies across the world are monitoring it closely.

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Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com

What is the BA.2.86 COVID-19 variant?

As I mentioned, it’s called BA.2.86, but it is also called the Pirola variant. It is related to the Omicron variant that was first identified in late 2021.

The CDC has explained that what makes the Pirola variant different is that it has over 30 mutations which means it may behave very differently than previous versions of the virus. That number of mutations is on par with what we observed with the Delta and Omicron variants of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. The CDC said, “BA.2.86 may be more capable of causing infection in people who have previously had COVID-19 or who have received COVID-19 vaccines.”

Other health agencies across the world have been closely monitoring BA.2.86. For example, the World Health Organization stated that it was a “variant under monitoring” on August 17.

The CDC said there is “no evidence” that BA.2.86 is causing more severe illness but said that could change as more information becomes available. Health experts typically gauge severity by the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

We also don’t know whether this strain is more or less infectious (that is, the ability to spread from one person to another) than the previous strains.

So what we know right now is that it may evade an individual’s immunity, whether from vaccines or previous infection. And we don’t know if it’s more infectious or will cause more severe illness. We would all like the answers to these questions, but it takes time.

What is the current status of the BA.2.86 variant?

On 27 November 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published new information on the BA.2.86 variant, and here are the key take-home points:

  1. Cases — The BA.2.86 variant accounted for nearly 9% of cases during the 2 weeks ending on 25 November 2023, up from 3% during the previous 2 weeks.
  2. Severity — The CDC stated “At this time, BA.2.86 does not appear to be driving increases in infections or hospitalizations in the United States.” This is good news.
  3. Transmission — Because there are still not a large number of cases, the CDC is not able to determine an accurate transmission rate of this variant.

CDC contributed to and agrees with the World Health Organization’s recent risk assessment about BA.2.86 suggesting that the public health risk posed by this variant is low compared with other circulating variants, based on available limited evidence.

What about vaccines?

There has been plenty of data that has established that even when the vaccines did not prevent a COVID-19 infection, vaccines significantly reduced the risk of hospitalization from the disease. The reason for this is that even though vaccines may not give full immunity to a strain or substrain, they almost always provide partial immunity, which would be enough for the immune system to attack the virus before it leads to serious complications.

There is no evidence that the BA.2.86 strain can avoid either vaccine or natural immunity. As I wrote recently, get the updated COVID-19 vaccine just in case this new strain or any other strain starts to become a serious concern.

Summary

It seems like we are often given limited information about COVID-19 and each of its subsequent strains. It’s because when we find a new strain, we have a limited number of cases to figure out what may or may not happen. I think the CDC and WHO are being extraordinarily cautious about the BA.2.86 variant so that people are warned but not panicked.

So, what am I going to do? I have started wearing an N95 facemask again. From my observations, I’d say that about 10% of people are wearing masks in public places again. I also received the updated COVID-19 vaccine a few weeks ago, along with my seasonal flu and RSV vaccines.

Otherwise, don’t panic. But I’ll keep monitoring the situation and provide updates as necessary.

Michael Simpson

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