London, August 21, 2023 – The novel and highly mutated COVID Variant, named BA.2.86, has been identified in the United Kingdom, causing a ripple of concern among health officials and experts. The presence of this mutation was confirmed on Friday by the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), in an individual who had no recent history of travel, sparking fears of potential community transmission within the country.
The distinguishing feature of the BA.2.86 variant lies in its unusually high number of mutations—33 to be precise. These genetic alterations have raised alarms due to their potential to reshape the spike proteins that reside on the virus’s surface. These spike proteins play a crucial role in facilitating the virus’s entry into human cells, and any changes to their structure could have significant implications for transmissibility and severity of disease.
Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an esteemed infectious disease control expert from the University of Exeter, weighed in on the significance of these mutations. “Having changed their shape, they may become more infectious, they may become more disease-causing,” he explained during an interview with Sky News. “On the other hand, they may not. We just don’t know yet.”
This mutation, dubbed BA.2.86, was initially detected in Denmark on July 24, 2023. Since then, cases of this variant have surfaced in Israel and the United States. Experts speculate that this variant might be a precursor to the BA.2 variant, informally referred to as the “stealth Omicron,” which emerged from southern Africa and made its first appearance in the UK in late 2021.
Amidst the emergence of this new variant, another variant known as EG.5.1 has been contributing to nearly one in seven new COVID-19 cases in the UK. However, the UKHSA has been forthright about the limitations in available data, which have hindered a comprehensive assessment of the BA.2.86 variant’s potential severity and its susceptibility to existing vaccines.
Renowned computational systems biology professor François Balloux, who also directs the UCL Genetics Institute at University College London, underscored the significance of the BA.2.86 variant. “It is the most striking SARS-CoV-2 strain the world has witnessed since the emergence of Omicron,” he emphasized.
Despite the apprehension, health experts remain cautiously optimistic about the implications of this variant. With a significant portion of the population having developed immunity either through vaccination or previous infections, the potential for a fresh wave of severe illness and fatalities appears relatively low.
Prof. Balloux elaborated on this point, stating, “Even if people get reinfected by BA.2.86, immune memory will still allow their immune system to kick in and control the infection far more effectively.” Nevertheless, he added a note of caution: “It remains that a large wave of infection by BA.2.86, or any future comparable variant, would be an unwelcome event.”
Prof. Balloux further speculated that the variant likely originated in an immunocompromised individual, someone with a weakened immune system, who subsequently spread it to others. He reiterated the importance of global vaccination campaigns as a primary defense mechanism against the spread of the virus.
While the BA.2.86 variant’s implications are under scrutiny, the UKHSA has affirmed its commitment to a thorough assessment. The agency is actively gathering additional information to provide a clearer picture of this new variant’s characteristics and potential impact.
For the latest developments on the BA.2.86 variant and its ramifications, stay tuned to reliable news sources and heed the guidance provided by public health authorities.