A COVID-19 variant with a long list of mutations is stirring fears among experts, but the impact is still unknown. The latest discovery comes just days after the same lineage was spotted in Israel and Denmark. The virus is currently only being tracked as a “variant under monitoring” and not classified as a ‘’variant of concern (VOC)’’ or a ‘’variant of interest’’, the categories WHO uses to describe the most dangerous versions of the coronavirus.
But a study by the California-based company Helix that analyzes samples from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 outbreak database, which is published on research site MedRxiv and viewed by USA TODAY, suggests this particular combination of mutations could be more contagious than its ancestor Omicron. The study, published this week and cited by USA TODAY, looked at 29,719 positive samples from the pandemic’s first five months and found that the new strain caused more infections than Omicron.
The study analyzed the mutations in the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that latches onto human cells to infect them. It found that the new variant, referred to as BA.2.86 by scientists, has more than 30 mutations in that spike protein compared to the dominant Omicron strain, which has fewer than 20.
But the study’s authors also caution that the number of new mutations in the spike protein doesn’t necessarily mean the new version is more dangerous. It’s more important to look at how fast the new mutations spread, which can be measured by how quickly the viral load increases.
Denmark, where 33 people have been infected with the latest Covid variant – expected to quadruple by early April if it’s as transmissible as feared – is not taking any chances. The State Serum Institute (SSI) has suspended flights from the UK, where the variant first cropped up, and has started analyzing genetic material from 7,805 positive tests from November 14 to December 14.
So far, the SSI says it has found the new variant in three of the 33 people who tested positive for the virus during that time. It still needs to be made clear if those patients had any connection with the UK or traveled there before their infection.
The new variation is causing alarm among experts who fear it could spark a fresh wave and prompt the return of lockdowns and other pandemic-era measures. But others have warned that it’s far too soon to panic. With vaccinations set to come online next month, a fresh surge is unlikely, and most experts say that even if the new variant proves more infectious than Omicron, it will likely be kept in check by high immunity levels. That said, there’s always a chance that an undetected doomsday variant will emerge and send the outbreak back to square one. Many countries are rushing to test for it as they prepare to administer the vaccines in a few weeks.