A new COVID variant detected in Israel is being tracked by health authorities worldwide. The variant, sequenced in Israel and Denmark in late July, has now also appeared in Michigan in the United States.
The World Health Organization SARS-CoV-2 virus evolution advisory group has designated the novel variant, known as BA.2.86, as a variant under monitoring (VUM) due to its many mutations. The US Centers for Disease Control is also monitoring it.
“No one knows about its virulence or how transmissible it is,” said Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit, director of the School of Public Health at Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical Center.
Virologists are closely tracking the variant because it has more than thirty mutations within its spike protein.
“The interest is because it’s so detached from the BA.2 Omicron variant [which drove most COVID cases around the world]. So it’s like a second generation of the BA.2. Supposedly that’s how they see it now,” Calderon-Margalit said.
“It’s as far away from the original Omicron as the original Omicron was from the wild-type [which started the pandemic],” she explained.
Only one case of BA.2.86 has been reported in Israel thus far. There is no public information on the person infected, how or where they contracted it, or how clinically ill they are. Regardless, Calderon-Margalit said it was far too early to tell whether the variant would cause a surge in illnesses or hospitalizations.
Health Ministry data shows that the number of people in hospital due to COVID in the last month has remained steady at around 200 people per day, with a drop off to 100 in the last week (perhaps due to many Israelis being outside the country for vacation). The number of severely ill COVID patients has been at around 30-35 on any given day for the last month.
“If there is a surge with a very violent, aggressive virus, you would expect to see some surge in hospitalizations. It’s simply too early to tell whether this new variant is of concern because currently, the level of hospitalizations for COVID is so low, especially for the severe cases,” Calderon-Margalit said.
The fact that many countries around the world have done away with testing and quarantine policies and have become more lax about tracking and reporting data may also make it difficult to get a clear picture of the situation. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control says it has not received comprehensive reports this summer and therefore “assessment of the COVID-19 epidemiological situation for the EU/EEA is not comprehensive and data should be interpreted with some caution.”
There has been an uptick in hospitalizations in the US and Europe, but it is too early to tell what this means in terms of a potential widespread COVID comeback in the fall and winter.
According to Calderon-Margalit, perhaps the most pressing concern regarding the new BA.2.86 is how its arrival will affect plans for fall vaccinations. The US Food and Drug Administration announced on June 15 that COVID vaccines for the fall should cover Omicron XBB variants, which were the most common thus far in 2023.
Requests for comment from the Health Ministry on the new variant’s appearance in Israel, and on plans for COVID vaccinations for the fall and winter, were not answered by publication time.