A “worrying” study has warned that the fast-spreading new coronavirus variant may be more deadly than previous versions
By Caitlin Tilley, Health Correspondent for Dailymail.Com
16:00 08 January 2024, updated 17:06 08 January 2024
- Ohio State University found that BA.2.86 can infect lung cells more efficiently
- JN.1, a descendant of BA.2.86, is responsible for more than 3 in 5 Covid cases
- Read more: Has Covid become a stomach bug? Scientists say ‘it’s possible’
The new coronavirus variant behind a resurgence in hospitalizations may be deadlier than previously thought, research suggests.
BA.2.86 – or “Pirola” – is a mutation of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant that is the predecessor to the currently dominant JN.1, responsible for more than three in five Covid cases as of January 6.
Both strains have about 60 more protein mutations than the original coronavirus and more than 30 more mutations than other Omicron variants such as BA.2 and XBB.1.5.
A new study by Ohio State University found that BA.2.86 can infect cells in the lower part of the lung and can enter cell membranes more efficiently than other versions of Omicron.
Dr. Shan-Lu Liu, the study’s senior author and a professor of virology at Ohio State University, said the findings were “alarming.”
“The concern is whether this variant, as well as its descendants, including JN.1, will have an increased tendency to infect human lung epithelial cells similar to the parental virus that launched the pandemic in 2020,” he said.
In laboratory tests, the researchers found that BA.2.86 was most efficient in infecting humans in the lower part of the lung.
Upper respiratory infections affect the throat and sinuses, including the common cold and sore throat.
However, lower respiratory infections last longer and are more severe because they affect the bronchial tubes and lungs.
They include bronchitis and pneumonia, with symptoms including chronic cough and difficulty breathing.
“BA.2.86 may have an increased tendency to use the plasma membrane entry route rather than the endosomal entry route,” the researchers wrote.
This means that BA.2.86 enters cells more efficiently by directly penetrating the cell membrane rather than binding to the cell surface and colliding with receptors.
The experiments were conducted using pseudoviruses, a non-infectious part of the virus surrounded by different Covid spike proteins on the surface designed to match known variants.
“We need to confirm these results using the real virus,” Dr. Liu said.
“But from our previous experience, we know that infection in human epithelial cell lines provides very important information.”
“This raises potential concerns about whether or not this virus is more pathogenic compared to recent Omicron variants,” he added.
While laboratory tests have indicated that BA.2.86 is more dangerous, this is not reflected in official data.
BA.2.86 began trading in America in August 2023.
Since then, Covid deaths have remained very low. In the last week of 2023, the CDC estimated there were 839 deaths from the virus.
By comparison, in the last week of 2022, there were 3,658 deaths from Covid.
Hospitalizations have been rising since BA.2.86 arrived on the scene in August 2023. By the first week of September, there were 20,699 hospitalizations in America, up from 6,487 in the first week of July.
However, hospitalizations are still much lower than last year.
In the week ending December 30, there were 34,798 hospitalizations in the United States, compared to 44,542 in December 2022.
In January 2022, at the height of the epidemic, there were 150,650 deaths in a week.
Researchers in Ohio also found that the bivalent booster vaccine was effective at neutralizing BA.2.86, which explains why the variant did not cause a huge wave as previously feared.
In a separate trial, researchers analyzed antibodies in blood samples from healthcare professionals who received three monovalent Covid vaccines, two monovalent vaccines and one bivalent booster, and first responders who contracted Covid during the XBB.1.5 wave.
They compared the antibodies’ ability to prevent infection by BA.2.86, the original Covid virus, an XBB-derived variant known as FLip, and several Omicron variants.
Researchers at Ohio State found that antibodies from antibodies from health care workers who took booster doses were more efficient at neutralizing them. BA.2.86 than in neutralizing other omicron variants, including XBB.1.5.
In contrast, the three monovalent vaccines and previous infection with XBB.1.5 were barely effective in preventing infection with BA.2.86.
The study was published in the journal Cell.
(Tags for translation) Covid