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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a risk assessment last week for a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, BA.2.86, saying it “may be more capable of causing infection in people who have previously had COVID-19 or who have received COVID-19 vaccines.”

Internet lecturer John Campbell, Ph.D., who analyzed the announcement in a video, said, “It’s not a dramatic new virus and it’s very unlikely that’s going to make people sicker.” Campbell is a retired emergency room nurse, nurse teacher and author of two nursing textbooks.

The CDC said the variant isn’t likely driving the current increase in hospitalizations in the U.S., and that existing COVID-19 medications appear to be effective for treating it.

The BA.2.86 variant, a derivative of Omicron, as of Aug. 23 was detected in a small number of cases in Denmark (the first case, identified in late July), Israel, South Africa, the U.S. and the U.K.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said there was “no known epidemiological link between the identified cases,” while the CDC stated the widely dispersed cases were “evidence of international transmission.”

According to the CDC, a U.S. wastewater sample collected as part of routine monitoring also indicated the presence of the variant.

Because few countries are testing with the same intensity as during the pandemic, Campbell said, it’s not surprising the variant would not pop up on the radar until it’s more widespread. “It’s probably been around for a while,” he added.

Variant’s 34 mutations have scientists worried

Campbell cited an article in the journal Nature, which explained why the new variant is concerning. “The emergence of BA.2.86 is reminiscent of the appearance of the omicron variant in late 2021,” according to Nature. “That’s when scientists in South Africa first identified the omicron lineage that “quickly went global.”

This variant appears to be descended from an Omicron subvariant, BA.2 which, according to Nature, in early 2022 caused large spikes in cases.

“There’s a little bit of déjà vu all over again,” Adam Lauring, M.D., Ph.D., told Nature. Lauring, a virologist and infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, runs the lab that recently identified a BA.2.86 infection case.

The new variant “is of particular concern because of its more than 30 mutations,” according to a Medscape article. The high number of mutations on Aug. 17 earned BA.2.86 classification as a “variant under monitoring” by the WHO.

Medscape warned that with this many mutations, the variant could behave differently than previous versions of the virus. It called the CDC’s formal message that BA.2.86 could evade vaccines or the protection of natural immunity a “rare step.”

Vaccines likely driving variants, reducing immunity

Commenting on the CDC’s claim that those previously infected with COVID-19 — and thus with natural immunity — could also be more susceptible to infection from the variant, Campbell said he found it “hard to understand.”

“If you’ve got natural immunity, you’ve got antibodies and resistance to membrane proteins, envelope proteins, nucleocapsid proteins, genome proteins,” Campbell said.

“Natural immunity will be polyclonal and will give rise to protective cytotoxic killer cells and T helper cells and … sensitized macrophages and phagocytes,” he added.

Campbell said the mutations of this variant are mostly found on the spike protein which, because it is targeted by the vaccines, could explain why vaccination increases the likelihood of infection.

“Why is this is not talked about?” Campbell asked. “Is it because repeated vaccination has caused stimulation of the T suppressor [cells], now called ‘T regulatory cells,’ that down-regulates the immune response?”

Referencing a February Science Immunology study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Campbell also questioned whether the mRNA vaccines could be stimulating immunoglobin G type 4 (IgG4) antibodies resulting in fewer infected cells being eliminated by the immune system.

Even the study’s authors recommended further spacing out of the mRNA booster schedule — a whole year between shots, they advised — and putting less mRNA in the vaccines.

Despite the positive association of the mRNA vaccines with infection from this variant, in its BA.2.86 advisory, the CDC recommended people stay current with COVID-19 vaccinations.

Campbell called out President Joe Biden’s recommendation that everyone get a new vaccine, the recently announced $1.4 billion funding by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop “future COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics,” and the CDC’s continuing recommendation that people get the “safe, effective and free” COVID-19 vaccinations.

Campbell warned that spike protein changes in new variants may lead to immune escape from the current vaccines and that the latest booster shots could increase infection risk from BA.2.86.

Although health officials may be concerned, “All the evidence so far shows that it’s not making people iller and personally I’m not worried about it,” Campbell said.

Campbell quoted Jesse Bloom, Ph.D., a viral evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington, in remarks shared with Nature. Bloom said, “The most likely scenario is that this variant fizzles out in a month nobody other than people like me even remember it existed.”

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