Article image

New Covid variant has 30 mutations on the spike protein

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that they are monitoring a new Covid variant known as BA.2.86. This variant, a spinoff of the widely-recognized Omicron variant, has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein relative to the current predominant variant.

So far, only three cases of this strain have been identified worldwide since it first came under the radar a month ago. A report in The Guardian says it’s currently unclear if the variant causes more severe disease than its predecessors.

A significant detail that has piqued the interest of health officials is the variant’s collection of mutations, which differ from those of previously recognized strains.

Careful monitoring 

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s lead for the Covid response, said that despite the limited data available, this new variant “requires careful monitoring due to its extensive mutational profile.”

The emerging variant initially gained attention after a digital virus-tracker spotted two cases in Denmark. Intriguingly, these findings came shortly after the same lineage was found in Israel. 

Thanks to the science of sequencing – a process that breaks down the exact genetic composition of virus samples – virologists have been able to determine that all three cases are of the same virus. 

Mutations on the spike protein 

Preliminary tests indicate that BA.2.86 has over 30 mutations on its spike protein. This protein is essential as it’s responsible for the virus’s ability to attach to and infect human cells. Notably, the spike protein is the part of the virus that vaccines aim to neutralize.

While several of these mutations are yet to have their functions classified, some are believed to aid the virus in dodging our immune defenses. 

Will the virus spread rampantly?

Despite these findings, the million-dollar question remains: will BA.2.86 spread prolifically or simply fizzle out like many of its highly-mutated counterparts?

Professor Paul Hunter, a distinguished infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia, expressed concerns regarding the strain’s potential reach. 

Professor Hunter said that if the variant is as contagious as we fear, it’s likely already in places like the UK or the United States. “If it isn’t now, then it probably very soon will be.”

Is it time to mask up?

This concern has led some scientists to advocate for the reintroduction of measures like face masks to curb its spread. Dr. Trisha Greenhalgh, a leading primary care expert from Oxford University, recently took to Twitter suggesting, “it looks like it’s once again time to MASK UP.” Yet, she also admitted her understanding of the variant’s specifics remains limited.

Currently, the UK has yet to make a formal announcement regarding BA.2.86. The United Kingdom is, however, keeping tabs on another variant termed Eris, which, interestingly, saw a significant jump in prevalence in the past month. 

According to experts, Eris does not appear to be more threatening than other circulating strains, including Omicron.

Increase in Covid hospitalizations 

The UK has seen a recent increase in COVID hospitalizations, which could potentially herald another wave. This trend is particularly concerning as the nation approaches the typically demanding autumn and winter seasons.

Some experts theorize factors such as adverse weather and the “Barbenheimer effect” might be playing a role in the infection spike, alongside diminishing immunity. 

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, said: ‘The latest data shows that Covid cases continue to rise. To help combat the spread of the virus, we continue to advise anyone with symptoms of a respiratory infection should try to stay at home and away from others – especially those who are vulnerable.”

“Hospitalizations are also increasing, but still remain at very low levels. ICU admissions have increased in this week’s report, but remain extremely low. We will continue to monitor these rates closely.”

“We urge everyone eligible to take up the vaccine when offered by the NHS this autumn.”


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day