Health authorities in the United States are closely monitoring the BA.2.86 variant of the COVID-19 virus, which has been detected in samples from at least 10 states. According to data from the global virus database GISAID, the variant has been found in Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
While BA.2.86 currently represents a small fraction of new COVID-19 cases nationwide, experts are concerned about its potential to spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not yet included this variant in its biweekly variant estimates, as there have been too few reported sequences. However, the CDC’s Coronaviruses and Other Respiratory Viruses Division has observed that many of the lineages have identical spike sequences, indicating convergent evolution.
Natalie Thornburg, a laboratory branch chief at the CDC, stated that it is still too early to determine the significance of BA.2.86’s circulation. However, health authorities believe that the variant is spreading widely around the world, as individuals infected with BA.2.86 do not have known links to other infected individuals or recent travel to areas with known cases.
Several countries, including Canada, have reported finding the BA.2.86 variant in wastewater samples or tests from infected individuals. The CDC’s airport testing program has also detected signs of the variant in travelers arriving from abroad. While it is too early to determine the transmissibility of BA.2.86 compared to other strains, officials have noted that it has the ability to drive outbreaks. In the United Kingdom, nearly two dozen nursing home residents were infected by the variant in a cluster of cases.
Despite concerns about the BA.2.86 variant, early research findings have been reassuring. The CDC and vaccine manufacturers have stated that the updated COVID-19 shots currently being rolled out should be effective against this variant. However, further research using viruses grown from actual samples of infected patients is needed to better understand BA.2.86.
As the late summer wave of COVID-19 driven by other variants appears to be passing its peak, officials express guarded hope. However, with the approaching respiratory virus season, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), it is too early to determine how the BA.2.86 variant will factor into modeling for the coming months. Scientists have already identified at least two different branches of BA.2.86, and cases from both sublineages have been reported globally.
Health authorities continue to closely monitor the BA.2.86 variant and its potential impact on public health.