CDC, WHO tracking new COVID-19 variant; highly mutated strain found in US

(NEXSTAR) – The World Health Organization added a new lineage of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to its Variants Under Monitoring (VUM) category on Thursday, citing a large number of mutations that “warrants attention.”

The lineage, named BA.2.86, has already been identified in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other cases have been identified in Denmark and Israel.

“More data are needed to understand this #COVID19 variant and the extent of its spread, but the number of mutations warrants attention,” WHO wrote in a message posted to X on Thursday. “WHO will update countries and the public as we learn more.”

The escalation of BA.2.86 to a VUM also happened relatively quick for a lineage with only three sequences available. The first case was identified on July 24, and WHO had classified it as a VUM less than a month later on Aug. 17.

It’s unclear if the variant’s 36 mutations will help it to better evade protections from vaccines or previous infection, Dr. S. Wesley Long, the medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, told Reuters. But virologist Jesse Bloom, who was also cited by the outlet, has already said that initial evaluations estimate that BA.2.86 has an “equal or greater” chance of evading immunity than Omicron or pre-Omicron variants.

At the moment, the CDC’s guidance for people seeking to protect themselves from new variants “remains the same,” the agency said.

WHO is currently tracking seven VUMs — all of which are sublineages of the Omicron variant. The agency is also tracking three Variants of Interest (VOI): the Omicron strains XBB.1.5, XBB.1.6, and the latest, EG.5, nicknamed Eris.

News of the BA.2.86 strain becoming a VUM also comes shortly after Moderna announced an updated COVID-19 shot that produced a “significant boost” of antibodies to fight EG.5.