A new coronavirus variant called BA.2.86 is now circulating in New York City, the city health department announced on Tuesday. Officials identified the variant in the boroughs’ wastewater, suggesting that it is spreading in communities even though no cases have been confirmed so far.
BA.2.86 has caught scientists’ attention due to several mutations showing up at once on its spike protein, the part of the virus that infects human cells. This large shift is similar to what happened with the omicron variant back in autumn 2021, ahead of one of the larger case and hospitalization surges recorded in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s like deja vu to the original omicron variant,” said Shishi Luo, a bioinformatics expert at Helix, a company that works with public health agencies to track coronavirus variants.
Luo, NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan and other scientists said that BA.2.86 could be better at evading immunity from past infections and vaccinations than the strains circulating now. But some of those researchers do not think a BA.2.86 surge will hit the same heights as past waves.
Future outcomes will hinge in part on whether the variant lessens the effectiveness of upcoming booster shots, which are scheduled to arrive in mid-September. While public health experts said these vaccines will still protect against severe disease, they are based on a recent variant that’s very different from BA.2.86.
At the moment, it’s hard to say how much this variant will affect COVID-19 outbreaks this fall, as global surveillance systems have identified just a few cases so far.
“It takes time to do the actual experiments to figure out the functional importance of these mutations,” Luo said. It will also take time to find more cases — an increasingly difficult task as fewer people get official PCR tests and as wastewater data is unevenly reported, as shown by a discrepancy in city and state announcements on Tuesday. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office said that BA.2.86 had yet to be found in the state just hours before the city health department alerted the public about its detection.
City health officials encourage taking precautions against COVID-19, as cases were already rising when BA.2.86 showed up.
“Staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, along with other proven prevention tools – like masking, testing and staying home when sick – continue to be our best defense against COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses,” Vasan said in Tuesday’s announcement of the variant’s arrival.
In a statement to Gothamist, the city health department did not address questions about when or where — within the city’s 14 sewersheds — the wastewater sample with BA.2.86 was collected.
“Sampling and sequencing are ongoing,” said spokesperson Patrick Gallahue.
‚Deja vu‘ to omicron
Scientists in Israel first identified BA.2.86 about two weeks ago. Then the variant quickly “popped up” in several other countries, said Marc Johnson, a virologist at the University of Missouri, suggesting it had been circulating under the radar for some time already.
Johnson and other experts suspect that the variant might have evolved in a single person with a long-term infection, given its closest evolutionary relative, called BA.2, was circulating widely more than a year ago, in spring 2022. Studies have documented how these persistent infections in immunocompromised people can lead to flourishes of coronavirus mutations. During long struggles to fight off the virus, the germ has more time to adapt.
“We’re sort-of going back in time to the root of this new lineage,” said Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at Rockefeller University. “There’s a fair amount of genetic distance” between BA.2.86 and other current variants.