Race to Unravel Highly Mutated Coronavirus Variant Seen in Multiple Countries

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Amidst growing concern, a newly identified and highly mutated variant of the Covid-19 virus has captured the attention of scientists worldwide, prompting urgent investigations into its potential impact on our immunity and the course of the pandemic. Dubbed BA.2.86, this variant, also playfully known as Pirola in online variant-tracking circles, has emerged with over 30 distinct changes in its spike protein when compared to its closest predecessor, the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.

Dr. Jesse Bloom, an expert in viral evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, compared the magnitude of BA.2.86's genetic divergence to the origin of the Omicron variant. This remarkable shift has triggered alarm, echoing the pivotal moment when the Omicron variant was first identified.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated BA.2.86 as a "variant under monitoring," urging nations to closely monitor and share any sequencing data they gather. Variants designated as "variants of interest" or "variants of concern" indicate increasing risks due to heightened disease severity, evasion of vaccines, or resistance to treatments. Presently, XBB.1.5, XBB.1.16, and EG.5 are categorized as variants of interest, while WHO has yet to elevate any to the status of a "variant of concern."

Despite only six reported sequences of BA.2.86 spanning four nations, experts in epidemiology express concern that this small number could be just the tip of the iceberg, with global variant surveillance showing signs of waning.

The variant's initial discovery was made in Israel, and subsequent occurrences have been noted in Denmark, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The Danish cases, dispersed geographically and with no apparent connection, have left scientists puzzled and emphasizing that it's too early to ascertain its contagiousness or severity. Rigorous investigations are underway, including testing the variant's interaction with human antibodies.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), aims to temper panic, highlighting that the new variant's detection signifies the efficiency of existing monitoring mechanisms. She emphasized the importance of tracking the variant's trajectory and its potential implications for public health.

The UK's Health Security Agency (UKHSA) observed sequences across nations and individuals with no recent travel history, indicating potential international transmission and a rapid spread of this variant. The University of Michigan researchers who identified the US sequence refrained from disclosing patient details as investigations are coordinated with the state health department.

The emergence of this variant comes on the heels of past speculation regarding the emergence of highly mutated variants. A survey conducted by the White House earlier this year highlighted expert predictions, with odds ranging from 10% to 20%, about the likelihood of such an event within two years.

As the Covid-19 landscape continues to evolve, the variant XBB descendant EG.5 maintains its prominence in the US, contributing to approximately 20% of new cases. In the relentless pursuit of understanding and managing these new developments, the global scientific community remains vigilant.