Closely Watched COVID Variant Detected in 10 U.S. States

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Sept. 19, 2023 – The highly mutated version of the COVID-19 virus called BA.2.86 has already infected people in 10 U.S. states, according to a worldwide COVID tracking database.

BA.2.86 has more than 30 mutations in the part of the virus responsible for entering healthy cells, therefore causing an infection. The sheer number of mutations has caught the attention of scientists and public health officials, who fear the design may be a recipe for the next COVID wave as winter approaches.

The data, published on GISAID, showed infections with BA.2.86 have happened in Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington state. 

BA.2.86 has also been detected in wastewater in the U.S., according to the CDC’s wastewater tracking report. But cases in the U.S. are still so rare that BA.2.86 is not reported by the federal agency's regular variant tracker. 

CDC officials concluded that BA.2.86 is spreading within communities, according to a Friday update, but isn’t increasing rapidly or driving the current rise in infections or hospitalizations.

In a study widely reported earlier this month and published Monday the journal The Lancet, Japanese researchers raised concerns that BA.2.86 may be “spreading silently worldwide.”

Led by a team from the University of Tokyo, scientists conducted laboratory tests that showed the protection from vaccines or prior infection may not be as effective against BA.2.86 compared to other widely circulating strains of the virus.

“Altogether, these results suggest that BA.2.86 is one of the most highly immune evasive variants so far,” the authors wrote.

Other early  laboratory experiments have shown that antibodies produced by vaccines and prior infection do mount an antibody response against BA.2.86, the CDC reported Sept. 8. At that time, the agency advised that real-world data will be the best way to tell how well immunity from vaccines or prior infection protects against severe illness from BA.2.86 infection.