A highly mutated variant feared to be better at infecting vaccinated people has now been detected in a third state.
The BA.2.86 strain was picked up via wastewater testing in Ohio, the state’s health department announced Wednesday, after the variant was detected in Virginia and Michigan over the past week.
Further analysis by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is ongoing to confirm the Ohio sample is the new strain, also known as ‘Pirola’.
The CDC announced Wednesday it believes ‘the large number of mutations in this variant raises concerns of greater escape from existing immunity from vaccines and previous infections compared with other recent variants.’
It comes as Covid hospital admissions across the US jumped 22 percent in a week, the fifth week in a row they have increased. The CDC is now forecasting an acceleration in new hospitalizations over the coming month.
Some 2,000 Americans are being admitted to the hospital each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
People wearing masks wait to enter the Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, in July 2020
The CDC’s forecast replaces a previous projection that admissions would ‘remain stable or have an uncertain trend.’
The forecast, released Monday, suggests around 2,000 Americans are being admitted to the hospital each day, the vast majority of whom are over 65.
Hospitalizations are still three times lower than they were this time last year, and death rates are still very low.
Doctors on the ground are also saying that the illness is the most mild they’ve seen in Covid patients during the pandemic.
Still, concerns about the new variants have led to masks creeping back into daily life.
A Kaiser Permanente hospital in Santa Rosa, California and Upstate Community Hospital in Syracuse, New York, which serve millions of Americans, have brought back mandates for doctors, nurses, patients and visitors.
Ken Gordon, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), told CBS News the department was ‘working with the CDC on further evaluation of the sample’ but added that the ‘preliminary detection has not [yet] been confirmed.’
Wastewater is tested as part of routine monitoring for the National Wastewater Surveillance System.
Positive wastewater tests can pick up old cases, but may also signal new cases.
Since the pandemic was declared over, the number of people doing swab tests is very low, and only a handful of these are analyzed for variants.
The BA.2.86 strain is highly mutated, and is potentially more likely to infect vaccinated Americans, the CDC said yesterday.
The stain has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein — the part the virus uses to infect people — that separates it from the currently dominant strains, which is feared to make it harder to recognize for the immune systems of vaccinated or previously infected people.
It may also be better at causing illness in people who’ve recently recovered from a Covid infection.
‘The large number of mutations in this variant raises concerns of greater escape from existing immunity from vaccines and previous infections compared with other recent variants,’ the CDC said in its risk assessment of BA.2.86, which has also been dubbed the ‘Pirola’ variant.
However, the agency said it was too soon to know if this will cause more severe infection than other variants and appears confident in its assessment that levels of immunity in the US population will still offer broad protection.
‘Nearly all the US population has antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 from vaccination, previous infection, or both, and it is likely that these antibodies will continue to provide some protection against severe disease from this variant,’ the CDC said.
DailyMail.com revealed Tuesday that the variant had been detected in a patient in Virginia, which was the second official case after a resident in Michigan was diagnosed with it last week.
However, the CDC said that because so few swabs are being analyzed now, the strain is likely much more widespread than the official figures indicate.
And Covid positivity rates – the share of swabs that come back positive – have nearly doubled between July and August.
The CDC said the current increase in US hospitalizations is not likely driven by BA.2.86. because of the lag it takes for people to catch and then fall sick with Covid.
This new BA.2.86 strain is believed to be descended from the BA.2 ‘stealth’ variant that surged globally early last year, which itself is a spinoff of the original Omicron strain.
The updated Covid vaccines – due to be rolled out this fall – are targeted towards strains descending from the XBB Omicron subvariant, which have become the dominant type globally.
The CDC said researchers are evaluating the effectiveness of the updated shots, which are anticipated to reduce severe disease and hospitalizations.
Compared to other strains descended from the Omicron subvariant, BA.2.86 has many more mutations.
The CDC compared the differences between it and its likely ancestor BA.2 as being similar to the difference between the Delta and Omicron variants.
‘The large number of mutations in this variant raises concerns of greater escape from existing immunity from vaccines and previous infections compared with other recent variants,’ the CDC said.
‘For example, one analysis of mutations suggests the difference may be as large as or greater than that between BA.2 and XBB.1.5, which circulated nearly a year apart.’
‘However, 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.’