The fast-changing coronavirus has spawned yet another super-infectious omicron mutant, which is worrying scientists as it gains ground in India and appears in many other countries, including the US.
Scientists say the variant, called BA.2.75, can spread rapidly and strip immunity from vaccines and previous infection. It is not yet clear whether it can cause more serious disease than other omicron variants, including the world-famous BA.5.
“It’s too early for us to draw too many conclusions,” said Matthew Biniker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “But it seems, especially in India, the transmission speed is showing exponential growth.” Whether it will outperform the BA.5 competition is yet to be determined, he said.
However, the fact that it has already been detected in many parts of the world even with lower levels of virus surveillance “is an early sign that it is spreading,” said Shishi Luo, head of infectious diseases at Helix, the company , which is engaged in virus sequencing. information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A vendor selling artificial flowers wears face masks distributed by health workers as a safety protocol to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Kolkata on July 4, 2022.
The latest mutant has been spotted in several remote states in India and appears to be spreading there faster than other variants, said Lippi Thukral, a scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi. It has also been detected in about 10 other countries, including Australia, Germany, Great Britain and Canada. Two cases were recently discovered on the US West Coast, and last week Helix discovered a third case in the US.
Experts are concerned by the large number of mutations that separate this new variant from omicron predecessors. Some of these mutations are in regions associated with the spike protein and may allow the virus to bind to cells more effectively, Biniker said.
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Another problem is that genetic changes can make it easier for the virus to evade antibodies, protective proteins produced by the body in response to a vaccine or infection from an earlier variant.
But experts say vaccines and boosters are still the best protection against severe COVID-19. Updated formulations of the vaccine being developed against the new omicron strains are likely to be available in the US in the fall.
“Someone might say, ‘Well, vaccination and boosting didn’t prevent people from getting infected.’ And yes, it is true,” he said. “But what we’ve seen is that the rate of people going to hospital and dying has gone down significantly. As more people have been vaccinated, strengthened or infected naturally, we’re starting to see the background level immunity is growing all over the world.”
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It may take several weeks to understand whether the latest omicron mutant can affect the trajectory of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at the Indian Christian Medical College in Vellore, said the growing concern about the possibility underscores the need for more sustained virus-tracking efforts that combine genetic efforts with real-world information about who is sick and how badly. . “It’s important that tracking is not a start-and-stop strategy,” she said.
Luo said BA.2.75 is another reminder that the coronavirus is constantly evolving — and spreading.
“We would like to go back to life before the pandemic, but we still need to be careful,” she said. “We have to accept that we are now living with a higher level of risk than before.”