CDC, WHO tracking a new ‘highly-mutated’ strain of COVID-19 variant

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that it has begun tracking a recently discovered COVID-19 strain, BA.2.86, after a case of the highly-mutated variant was reported in Michigan.

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In an unusually fast move, the variant was classified by the World Health Organization as a “variant under monitoring.” According to officials at the WHO, the fact that the strain has a large number of mutations led to the accelerated classification.

Depending on the type of mutations it has, the virus could better sidestep immunity the body has built up from vaccination or prior COVID-19 infections.

BA.2.86 has 36 mutations from the currently-dominant XBB.1.5 COVID variant and “harkens back to an earlier branch” of the virus, Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, told Reuters.

The strain is one from the original virus that caused COVID-19.

Researchers say the new variant “will have equal or greater escape than XBB.1.5 from antibodies elicited by pre-Omicron and first-generation Omicron variants,” Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center said in a slide deck published on Thursday.

According to Bloom, the most likely scenario is that BA.2.86 is less transmissible than current dominant variants, meaning it never spreads widely.

Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, told The Guardian that BA.2.86 was the most striking COVID-19 strain the world has witnessed since the emergence of Omicron.

“The most plausible scenario is that the lineage acquired its mutations during a long-term infection in an immunocompromised person over a year ago and then spread back into the community,” he said.

Even in the worst-case scenario, Balloux said, where BA.2.86 caused a major new wave of cases, “we are not expecting to witness comparable levels of severe disease and death as we did earlier in the pandemic when the Alpha, Delta or Omicron variants spread.”

Balloux added that the majority of people around the world have now either been vaccinated, infected with COVID-19, or both.

According to the CDC, the U.S. has better tools to help if a variant should start to spread.

“Today we are more prepared than ever to detect and respond to changes in the COVID-19 virus,” CDC spokesperson Kathleen Conley said in a statement to CBS News.

“Scientists are working now to understand more about the newly identified lineage … and we will share more information as it becomes available,” Conley added.

So far, the BA.2.86 strain has been seen in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Israel and the U.S.

According to the WHO, it is too early to tell if BA.2.86 is more dangerous than other strains of COVID-19 circulating now.

Most coronavirus infections can be detected using rapid home tests, but with BA.2.86, it is unclear if that is the case. The key to the success of home coronavirus tests is finding a certain protein in the test sample. With the number of mutations the new variant has, testing may be more difficult.

In the United States, the dominant COVID-19 variant is the EG.5 strain, according to the CDC. EG.5 is causing approximately 17% of new COVID-19 cases in the country.

EG.5 does not appear to be causing any different COVID-19 symptoms nor does it appear to cause more severe disease.

An at-home test or one at a doctor’s office will be able to confirm a coronavirus infection, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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