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U.S. Wastewater Tests Spot Highly Mutated Variant of COVID-19

Officials did not specify where the samples were from; most patients infected with new BA.2.86 variant have had mild symptoms

By Physician’s Briefing Staff HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 24, 2023 (HealthDay News) — Public health officials have detected the new BA.2.86 variant of COVID-19 in U.S. wastewater, giving rise to concerns about the highly mutated variant in the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the detection on Wednesday. It was found as part of routine wastewater sampling. Officials did not specify where the samples were from. Worldwide, nine sequences of the new variant have been reported from human COVID-19 infections, according to CNN. Besides two in the United States, the others are in Denmark, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Israel. Switzerland has detected the variant at low levels in wastewater. The two U.S. sequences came from patients in Michigan and Virginia. The Virginia patient had just returned from a trip to Japan and was identified through CDC traveler-based genomic surveillance.

Most of the patients have had mild symptoms, CNN reported. The concern is that BA.2.86 has more than 30 gene changes compared with its ancestor BA.2. That makes its evolution similar to what happened when the virus mutated from delta to the highly contagious omicron in 2021. It is also on par with how BA.2 and XBB.1.5 diverged a year apart, the CDC said.

“I think, and I think everybody concurs, that this is very likely to be a neutralization antibody escape mutant, which means that will be harder for our bodies to protect us from infection with this variant,” said Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico, according to CNN. Korber is working to clarify the structure of this variant, so other scientists can build models of it in their labs.

“Virus samples are not yet broadly available for more reliable laboratory testing of antibodies, and it is too soon to know the real-world impacts on immunity,” the CDC report said.

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