Scientists puzzled by discovered highly mutated variant of coronavirus

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The new, highly mutated variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 has put countries on alert as scientists try to understand how far it has spread and how well our immune systems will defend against it.

As reported by CNN, the new variant, named BA.2.86 and nicknamed Pirola by social media variant hunters, has more than 30 amino acid changes in its spike protein compared to its next closest ancestor, the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, according to Dr. Jesse Bloom. who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Institute. Cancer Center in Seattle.

“This makes it an evolutionary leap comparable in size to the one that originally led to Omicron,” Bloom wrote on his lab’s website.

The World Health Organization on Thursday designated BA.2.86 as a “variant under monitoring,” prompting countries to track and report sequences found.

A monitored variant that causes more severe disease or does not respond to existing vaccines or treatments may be included in the list of variants of interest or of concern to WHO. XBB.1.5, XBB.1.16 and EG.5 are listed as options of interest. WHO has not identified any options of concern.

Data on six BA.2.86 sequences have been reported in four countries, but epidemiologists are concerned that there could be many more as monitoring of variants ceased worldwide.

As noted by CNN, this variant was discovered by scientists in Israel last Sunday. Denmark has since reported three episodes. Two more cases were reported in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively.

“It is unusual for a crown to change so significantly and develop 30 new mutations. The last time we saw such a big change was when Omicron came out,” notes Morten Rasmussen, senior scientist at the Statens Serum Institut (SSI), in a news statement regarding the variant.

According to the institute, three cases in Denmark have been reported in people in different parts of the country who do not appear to have been in contact with each other.

SSI scientists stressed that it is still too early to say anything about the severity or contagiousness of the new variant. They are in the process of growing a variant of the virus to test it for human antibodies.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Friday that the new option should not cause undue alarm.

“I think we can see that our discovery mechanisms that we have implemented are working, right?” she told CNN. “We are more prepared than ever to detect and respond to changes in the Covid-19 virus. We are tracking this new pedigree. He has mutations that really set him apart from other circulating lines. And then the question arises: what does this mean? Will it increase? Will we see more such cases? Will they fade away and stop being a concern?”

In a new threat assessment released on Friday, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the fact that these episodes are seen in four different countries in people with no history of recent travel “suggests there is established international transmission.”

The sequences found are very similar to each other, which may indicate they are recent and spreading rapidly, the report says, although the UKHSA notes that it has low confidence in this estimate until more sequences become available.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, the lab that found the US sequence, did not provide any information about the patient it came from, saying the case is being investigated by the state health department.

In March, the White House polled about a dozen Covid-19 experts who track the evolution of the coronavirus to ask about the likelihood of a highly mutated variant appearing within the next two years. Most experts estimated the likelihood of this happening to be somewhere between 10% and 20%.

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