A highly mutated COVID variant called BA.2.86 has now been detected in Switzerland and South Africa in addition to Israel, Denmark, the U.S. and the U.K., according to a leading World Health Organization official. The Omicron offshoot carries more than 35 mutations in key portions of the virus compared with XBB.1.5, the dominant variant through most of 2023 – a number roughly on par with the Omicron variant that caused record infections compared to its predecessor. It was first spotted in Denmark on July 24 after the virus infecting a patient at risk of becoming severely ill was sequenced.
A dozen scientists around the world said while it was important to monitor BA.2.86, it was unlikely to cause a devastating wave of severe disease and death given immune defenses built up worldwide from vaccination and prior infection. “It’s still low numbers,” Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at the WHO, said in her first interview regarding BA.2.86. That the known cases are not linked suggests it is already circulating more widely, particularly given reduced surveillance worldwide, she said.
Scientists are testing how well updated COVID-19 vaccines will work against BA.2.86. Kerkhove noted that vaccines have been better at preventing severe illness and death than re-infection.