The rapidly evolving coronavirus has produced another super-contagious omicron mutant that is worrying scientists as it gains ground in India and is emerging in numerous other countries including the United States.
Scientists say the variant – dubbed BA.2.75 – may be able to spread quickly and bypass immunity from vaccines and previous infections. It’s unclear if it could cause more serious diseases than other Omicron variants, including the world-renowned BA.5.
“It’s very early for us to jump to too many conclusions,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “But it looks like transmission rates, particularly in India, are showing some sort of exponential increase.” Whether it will surpass BA.5 remains to be determined, he said.
The fact that it has already been detected in many parts of the world, even with less virus surveillance, “is an early indication that it is spreading,” said Shishi Luo, head of infectious diseases at Helix, a company that provides virus sequencing information to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest mutant has been spotted in several distant states of India and appears to be spreading there faster than other variants, said Lipi Thukral, a researcher at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi. It has also been spotted in about 10 other countries including Australia, Germany, the UK and Canada. Two cases were recently identified on the US West Coast, and Helix identified a third US case last week.
Experts’ concerns fuel a large number of mutations that distinguish this new variant from omicron ancestors. Some of these mutations are in areas related to the spike protein that could allow the virus to attach to cells more efficiently, Binnicker said.
Another concern is that the genetic changes could make it easier for the virus to get past antibodies – protective proteins made by the body in response to a vaccine or infection with an earlier variant.
However, experts say vaccines and boosters are still the best defense against severe COVID-19. Updated formulations of the vaccine targeting newer Omicron strains are likely to be developed in the US in the fall.
“Some may say, ‘Well, vaccinations and boosters haven’t stopped people from getting infected.’ And yes, that’s true,” he said. “But we have seen that the number of people who end up in hospital and die has decreased significantly. As more people have been vaccinated, boosted or infected naturally, we are beginning to see background levels of immunity increasing globally.”
It may take several weeks to get a sense of whether the latest mutant omicron could affect the course of the pandemic. dr Gagandeep Kang, who studies viruses at India’s Christian Medical College in Vellore, said the growing concern about the variant underscores the need for more sustained virus tracking and tracing efforts that combine genetic efforts with real-world information about who gets sick and how much. “It’s important that surveillance is not a stop-start strategy,” she said.
Luo said BA.2.75 is another reminder that the coronavirus is constantly evolving — and spreading.
“We’d love to return to pre-pandemic life, but we still have to be careful,” she said. “We have to accept that we are now living at a higher risk than we used to.”
Ghosal reported from New Delhi. Ungar reported from Louisville, Kentucky.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.