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What to know about new COVID variants

BA.2.86 is considered a highly-mutated new COVID variant and has been detected in at least four countries.

MINNEAPOLIS — With back to school around the corner, doctors say it's a good time to start protecting against the flu and COVID-19. 

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in the United States, although numbers remain low compared to pandemic levels. 

Last week, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced they would be closely tracking a new variant called BA.2.86 — nicknamed Pirola. 

It was first detected in Demark in the end of July. Since then, it's also popped up in Israel, the U.K. and the United State. There have been at least six confirmed cases in the U.S., one of them in Michigan. 

While a low amount, it's gaining attention because it's different from other strains circulating because it has more than 30 mutations.

"This has been the hallmark of the COVID virus... is it mutates so rapidly. It's quite astonishing, really. But the good news is this current mutation that has led to some changes in the virus genome doesn't necessarily seem to make it any more virulent, or aggressive, or dangerous," said Dr. Mark Schleiss, an infectious disease expert with M Health Fairview and professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "It's still a dangerous infection to people who are unimmunized or fall into high-risk groups but this is not a strain that is intrinsically more worrisome than the previous strains we've seen." 

Dr. Schleiss said the same can be said for EG.5 or Eris which is now the dominant coronavirus subvariant in the United States. Although early reports show it may be more contagious. 

What does this mean for the updated COVID-19 vaccines expected this fall? 

Dr. Schleiss said the anticipated booster vaccines should be effective against the new strains. They're still awaiting FDA approval but could be ready as early as late September. 

The boosters will target XBB 1.5, a descendent of the Omicron variant. 

"The XBB strain is the one that's been circulating over the last several months. So even this new strain which only takes a small percentage of the total strains, from what I understand, what I've seen in the sequence, is very similar to Eris and it should be something that can be prevented by vaccination," Dr. Schleiss said. 

"We need to maintain a high level of immunization because this virus is still very worrisome. Hospitalization rates are increasing around the country, as you know, and the COVID situation is still very dynamic. So people do need to be vaccinated," Dr. Schleiss said. 

One concern is whether or not COVID tests can effectively detect newer strains. Dr. Schleiss said he does not think we know yet for sure. 

He said, "What the CDC is saying is that there's no reason to think that the circulation of new strains will alter the reliability of the current COVID tests that are available. Stay tuned that could change." 

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