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Laboratory tests in the United States indicate that the recently identified COVID-19 variant, BA.2.86, might be less contagious and exhibit lower immune evasion characteristics than initially anticipated.

Two teams of US scientists conducted laboratory experiments to test how antibodies from vaccinated and previously infected individuals would respond to various variants of the COVID-19 virus, including the highly mutated BA.2.86 variant. Their findings suggest that BA.2.86 may be less contagious and less immune-evasive than initially feared. The results of both teams’ experiments were similar, indicating that the immune system can recognize and combat BA.2.86 as effectively as, and possibly even better than, other currently circulating variants.

Surprisingly, individuals who had recently recovered from an infection with the XBB subvariant had the most robust immune responses against BA.2.86, suggesting that the updated COVID-19 vaccines scheduled for this fall, designed to combat XBB.1.5, may offer additional protection against various COVID-19 lineages, including BA.2.86.

These findings align with earlier experiments conducted in China and Sweden, which collectively indicate that BA.2.86 might not pose as significant a challenge as initially thought. In contrast, another variant called FL.1.5.1, responsible for approximately 15% of new COVID-19 infections in the US, was found to be more immune-evasive in laboratory testing.

While BA.2.86 initially raised concerns due to its numerous spike protein mutations, these early laboratory results suggest that it may not be as problematic as feared. Nevertheless, ongoing research is necessary to understand how the virus interacts with the immune system fully.

The studies have limitations, including the use of pseudoviruses rather than the actual virus, a small sample size in some experiments, and differences in the mix of variants and vaccines encountered by individuals in different regions. Nonetheless, experts remain cautiously optimistic and are awaiting further research to gain a clearer understanding of the BA.2.86 variant’s behavior.

Overall, BA.2.86 does not appear to be the “second coming of Omicron” and may not pose as dire a threat as initially feared, although continued monitoring and research are essential to confirm these early findings.