A concerning surge in SARS-CoV-2 infections has been revealed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The BA.2.86 variant is now responsible for nearly 10% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, marking a threefold increase in prevalence within two weeks. The Northeast, particularly the New York and New Jersey region, has become a hotspot for this highly mutated variant.
The BA.2.86 variant has gained prominence and is now categorized as a standalone variant by the CDC. Previously grouped with other BA.2 strains due to its rarity, recent trends have necessitated a reassessment. However, the CDC acknowledges a wide margin of error in its estimates, ranging from 4.8% to 15.2%. The surge in estimates is attributed to the dynamic nature of early projections and decreased laboratory-based testing for SARS-CoV-2 over time.
Before the rise of the BA.2.86 variant, the XBB variant and its descendants were the primary contributors to new COVID-19 cases in the United States. The CDC maintains that the BA.2.86 variant is not currently driving increases in infections or hospitalizations across America.
The JN.1 variant, a descendant of BA.2.86, has recently seen a surge in the United States and is becoming the fastest-growing subvariant worldwide. It has been identified as a significant driver of BA.2.86 infections in some regions, reaching 10% of sequences in France. While early investigations have not raised alarms, the CDC projects continued increases in both BA.2.86 and its offshoots, including JN.1, in the genomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2.
Questions arise regarding vaccine efficacy and the potential public health risk associated with the BA.2.86 variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) has elevated BA.2.86 to the status of a “variant of interest,” as its global proportions continue to grow. Early data suggests no significant change in symptoms compared to previous strains, and both the CDC and WHO consider the current public health risk as low.
As JN.1 becomes the most common version of BA.2.86 in the United States, concerns about vaccine effectiveness against this evolving landscape arise. However, the CDC reassures the public that this season’s vaccines are expected to remain effective against JN.1, mirroring their efficacy against the BA.2.86 parent strain.
While caution is needed due to declines in testing and reporting, regions such as Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean show upward trends in COVID-19 deaths, with a 26% increase in intensive care unit admissions. The JN.1 variant, identified as a descendant of BA.2.86, has become the fastest-growing subvariant globally, comprising a significant proportion of reported variants from labs in the United States.
Despite the rise in prevalence, the CDC maintains that the public health risk associated with BA.2.86 is low compared to other circulating variants. Other variants, such as HV.1, HK.3, JD.1.1, and JG.3, are also showing increasing proportions in the United States, adding to the complexity of the evolving landscape of SARS-CoV-2.
The latest CDC data update shows notable increases in severity indicators, with hospitalizations rising by 9.7% and deaths increasing by 8.3%. These impacts are primarily observed in limited counties, mostly in the Midwest.
The surge of the BA.2.86 variant, along with its descendant JN.1, presents a significant challenge in the fight against COVID-19. Vaccine efficacy, public health risk, and the potential impact on global health systems raise important questions that require ongoing research, effective communication, and a coordinated global response. Vigilance and adaptation of strategies to mitigate the spread of these emerging strains are crucial to safeguard public health worldwide in the face of the ever-changing dynamics of SARS-CoV-2.