New coronavirus variants have raised concern across the world amid a rise in cases in the United States and parts of Europe.
The BA.2.86 variant, nicknamed “Pirola”, is a newly designated, highly mutating variant of Omicron which triggered the surge in cases.
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A smaller wave of COVID-19 cases has meanwhile been fuelled by the newest dominant variant EG.5, or “Eris”.
Pirola has more than 30 mutations, which according to Scott Roberts, Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, is “notable”.
“When we went from [Omicron variant] XBB.1.5 to [Eris] EG.5, that was maybe one or two mutations,” he was quoted in the Yale Medicine bulletin as saying. “But these massive shifts, which we also saw from Delta to Omicron, are worrisome.”
What do we know about EG.5?
EG.5 is a descendant of the Omicron variant and has one notable mutation that helps it to evade antibodies developed by the immune system in response to earlier variants and vaccines.
While the World Health Organization has confirmed that “the public health risk posed by EG.5 is evaluated as low at the global level,” it also classified it as a “variant of interest”, meaning it has genetic changes that give it an advantage and its prevalence is growing.
The variant was identified in China in February 2023 and then first detected in the US in April.
What do we know about the BA.2.86 variant?
BA.2.86 is a newly designated variant of Omicron, which is a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but has additional mutations compared with previously detected Omicron subvariants, according to the Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialists.
It was first spotted in Denmark on July 24 after the virus infecting a patient at risk of becoming severely ill was sequenced. BA.2.86 then appeared in the US and Canada in August.
It has since been detected in other symptomatic patients in routine airport screening, and in wastewater samples in a handful of countries.
Scientists have said BA.2.86 is unlikely to cause a devastating wave of severe disease and death, given immune defences built up worldwide from vaccination and prior infection.
Tests for detection and medication to treat COVID-19 appear to be effective with BA.2.86, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, this variant may be more capable of causing infection in people who have had COVID-19 before. Yet, there is little evidence the strain is causing more severe illness.
“It’s a concern that it’s increasing, but it doesn’t look like something that’s vastly different from what’s already been circulating in the US for the past three to four months,” Andrew Pekosz, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University, was quoted in The New York Times as saying.
“So I think that’s what tempers my concern about this variant, at this point in time,” he added.
Will boosters be effective?
Scientists are evaluating the effectiveness of the forthcoming updated COVID-19 booster against BA.2.86, according to the CDC, which says the updated vaccine is expected to be effective at reducing severe disease and hospitalisation from BA.2.86.
The CDC recommended keeping up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots as a yearly measure to go along with flu immunisation.
The elderly and immunocompromised are especially encouraged to get the shot to lessen their chances of developing severe symptoms.
“With that being said, the CDC’s preliminary report says that we don’t have any evidence right now that BA.2.86 causes more severe disease, death, or hospitalization,” Scott said in the Yale Medicine weekly bulletin.
“We don’t yet know how transmissible it is, and it’s very possible it doesn’t spread that well and we would see this peter out in a couple of weeks. But it’s important to remember that it’s still the same virus at its core, so the same prevention methods — masking, vaccination, and hand washing, among others — can help people avoid infection,” he added.
What precautions have some countries taken?
The United Kingdom will bring forward the start of its autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccination programmes as a precautionary step after the identification of the BA.2.86 variant.
The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care said annual vaccination programmes for older and at-risk groups would start a few weeks earlier than planned in light of the variant.
“As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination programme,” said the junior health minister, Maria Caulfield, in a statement.
The variant was first detected in Britain on August 18, and vaccinations will start on September 11, with care home residents and people at high risk to receive the shots first.
In the US, updated COVID-19 vaccines are expected to become available next month as alarm grows over a new variant Eris.