We’re all sick and tired of the pandemic. We’ve been sick and tired of it for some time now. But we can’t afford to truly ignore it yet. Case in point: a concerning new variant has now been detected in several countries, including Switzerland, South Africa, Israel, Denmark, the U.S., and the U.K., according to a leading World Health Organization (WHO) official.
“BA.2.86 is the most striking SARS-CoV-2 strain the world has witnessed since the emergence of omicron,” said Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute.
We stopped tracing
The variant was first spotted in Denmark, on July 24. The fact that it’s already spread to so many countries seems to suggest that it has a chance to become dominant over Omicron — the currently dominating strain. The strain has been detected in some symptomatic patients (including patients with severe symptoms), routine airport screening, and wastewater samples.
However, global coronavirus monitoring is very lax by now — or outright non-existent. Because of this, it’s still not clear whether this variant causes more severe symptoms. Most people don’t even get tested anymore when they get the disease, let alone testing what variant they have.
“The number of sequences that the world and our expert networks are evaluating has dropped by more than 90 percent since the start of the year. That limits our ability to really track each of these [omicron subvariants],” said WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove.
In fact, most countries don’t even do basic coronavirus reporting anymore. Out of 234 countries and territories, only 103 send the WHO a case count. Just 19 are reporting hospitalization rates.
“We don’t have good visibility on the impact of COVID-19 around the world,” she said.
The new variant could take off quickly — we should keep an eye on it
There’s been a COVID-19 surge in some countries, but because there’s not much monitoring, it’s hard to say whether this is linked to the new variant. Even if it is, we’re in a much better situation than before. Much of the population has immunity, either from vaccines or from having the disease. There are a lot of vulnerable people, but even with these new mutations, it won’t hit us like previous variants in the past.
“While neutralising antibodies (which are partially escaped by highly mutated variants like BA.2.86) provide best protection against infection, there are also broader mechanisms of immunity elicited by vaccination and infection that provide some protection against severe disease even for very heavily mutated variants. So even if [it] starts to spread, we will be in a better place than we were in 2020 and 2021, since most people have some immunity to SARS-CoV-2 now,” Balloux said.
“Even in the worst-case scenario where BA.2.86 causes 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.”
But governments should still continue to keep track of how things evolve.
“It is really important that surveillance continues,” Van Kerkhove said, “and this is on the shoulders of governments right now.”
In the UK, the number of cases has doubled in a month (at least officially, the real number may be much larger) and in the US, hospitalizations leaped by over 20% in a week. Over 2,000 Americans require specialist care every day, per the CDC.
The new strain is a reminder that we’re still not entirely out of the woods, yet. Even as the worst days of the pandemic are hopefully behind us, COVID-19 can still pose serious problems.
Pfizer and Moderna are expected to release updated vaccine versions, that also account for recent strains, but it’s unclear whether they will incorporate specific resistance to this strain as well.
We’re all sick and tired of COVID-19 — but we’d still be wise to keep an eye on it.
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