New COVID Strain Bears Watching, Scientists Say

Highly mutated strain might be better at thwarting antibodies
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 25, 2023 5:30 PM CDT
New COVID Strain Bears Watching, Scientists Say
COVID test are set up inside the medical intake tent during a media tour of a shelter New York City is setting up to house up to 1,000 migrants in Queens, New York, last week.   (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The latest coronavirus variant has only caused about a dozen illnesses globally and has surfaced in just three US states, but experts have seen reasons it should be watched closely. The BA.2.86 variant could be better equipped than other strains to evade antibodies, even in people who have recently been vaccinated or infected, the Washington Post reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that existing tests and antiviral treatments should be effective on this strain. And other assessments have said the updated vaccine due out in September should still work, per CBS News. But there are reasons the experts are trying to learn about the new variant quickly.

BA.2.86 already has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, the part of the virus that vaccines lead the body to fight off. Antibodies successful against other variants could have trouble recognizing this one. "This is a radical change of the virus like what happened with omicron, which caught a lot of people defenseless," said Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. "Even if they had a vaccine or prior infection, it could still get into them and infect them again or for the first time. We are facing that again."

It's too soon to know whether this rapidly changing variant will spread as widely as omicron, or if the symptoms will be different or worse. Scientific tests could provide answers as soon as next week, per CBS. President Biden said Friday he wants Congress to authorize funding for a new vaccine, per the AP. Experts say they're going through the same frustrations as everyone else. "My level of concern changes every hour," said Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and author of a newsletter on COVID-19 developments. She compared the arrival of a new strain to spotting a storm forming in the distance. "We don't know if it's going to fizzle away or become a Category 5 or somewhere in between." (More COVID variants stories.)

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