• Omicron variant BA.2.86 is now making up a larger proportion of COVID cases, according to the CDC.
  • Though BA.2.86 is growing, it seems to be about as transmissible and as severe as most other Omicron variants.
  • With holiday gatherings approaching, people should get vaccinated and take precautions to avoid BA.2.86 infections.

Omicron variant BA.2.86—first detected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August—appears to be picking up steam in the U.S., the agency announced Monday.1

The most recent variant proportions data from the CDC show BA.2.86 (dubbed “Pirola”) making up just under 9% of cases in the U.S.—a threefold increase since two weeks ago when the variant made up 3% of cases.2 However, these are rough calculations; the CDC estimates that BA.2.86 could make up between 5% and 15% of all cases, currently.1

Despite BA.2.86’s increase, the CDC said that the variant “does not appear to be driving increases in infections or hospitalizations” in the U.S. and that current tests, treatments, and vaccines are all expected to be effective against the variant.

In addition to BA.2.86, the CDC noted that cases of another variant—JN.1—are also expected to rise, though it’s still accounting for less than 1% of cases currently. However, both variants are still considered a low public health risk.

Here’s what we know so far about BA.2.86, why it’s causing an increase in COVID cases, and how to best protect yourself during the holiday season.

person checking covid test
CAROL YEPES/GETTY IMAGES

How BA.2.86 Compares to Other Variants 

All viruses mutate or change in order to survive, including COVID-19, and viruses with these changes are called “variants.”

BA.2.86 appears to have descended from BA.2, known commonly as “stealth Omicron,” which was the dominant variant in the U.S. in early- to mid-2022.

“You can think of [BA.2.86] as a grandchild of Omicron,” William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Health.

Compared to previous variants, BA.2.86 has a large number of mutations—more than 30 mutations that differentiate it from BA.2, and more than 35 mutations than XBB.1.5, another Omicron variant.

These mutations raised concerns among scientists since they could make BA.2.86 better able to evade previous immunity from vaccines or prior infection. It’s because of this that the CDC warned BA.2.86 might be better at causing breakthrough infections, or new cases in people who’ve already had COVID or been vaccinated.1

Despite these mutations, BA.2.86 seems to be relatively similar to existing variants in real-world situations.

“This virus is a milder variant, but it looks to be just as contagious as [other Omicron variants],” said Schaffner. “Its infectiousness is about the same, its transmissibility, its contagiousness, and its severity is about the same—namely, it has not produced an increase in severe infections.”

As far as symptoms of BA.2.86 go, the CDC said it’s not currently possible to know if the variant produces symptoms different from other variants. However, symptoms of COVID-19 tend to be similar regardless of variant and often include fever or chills, cough, fatigue, muscle or body aches, and headache.

How to Stay Safe, With the Holidays Fast Approaching

Regardless of which variants are dominant, it’s important that people be extra cautious around the holidays when there’s more opportunity to spread COVID and other respiratory viruses.

“COVID hasn’t isappeared, it’s still with us,” said Schaffner. People may not need to change their behavior or lifestyles, however, the emergence of BA.2.86 is another reminder to be prepared for COVID, especially over the next couple months.

Because BA.2.86 is so similar to other Omicron variants, the updated COVID vaccines and available treatments are expected to be effective against it.1

“If you haven’t been vaccinated—and so many people have not yet—there’s still time to get vaccinated,” said Schaffner. “And while you’re at it, get your flu shot, too.”

This is true for everyone, but especially for those who are at an increased risk, such as older people or those with chronic underlying conditions, he added.

“Please be updated with your vaccines and if you’re out in those group activities, think about getting your mask out again, being a little bit extra careful,” he said.

Whether it’s a religious gathering, family party, or other wintertime event, these are occasions that “[COVID] loves, because that will facilitate the transmission of the virus,” said Schaffner.

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