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Lab data suggests new COVID booster will protect against worrisome variant

Lab data suggests the new COVID-19  booster shots should protect against a variant that concerns scientists. The boosters should be widely available this fall at pharmacies, like the one seen in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago
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Lab data suggests the new COVID-19 booster shots should protect against a variant that concerns scientists. The boosters should be widely available this fall at pharmacies, like the one seen in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City.

Scientists have produced the first data indicating that a variant that has raised alarm is unlikely to pose a big new COVID-19 threat.

Four preliminary laboratory studies released over the weekend found that antibodies from previous infections and vaccinations appear capable of neutralizing the variant, known as BA.2.86.

"It is reassuring," says Dr. Dan Barouch, who conducted one of the studies at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

When it was first spotted, BA.2.86 set off alarm bells. It contains more than 30 mutations on the spike protein the virus uses to infect cells. That's a level of mutation on par with the original Omicron variant, which caused a massive surge.

The concern was BA.2.86, while still rare, could sneak around the immunity people had built up and cause another huge, deadly wave.

"When something heavily mutated comes out of nowhere ... there's this risk that it's dramatically different and that it changes the nature of the pandemic," says Benjamin Murrell, who conducted one of the other studies at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

But Murrell and Barouch's experiments, along with similar studies conducted by Yunlong Richard Cao at Peking University in China and by Dr. David Ho at Columbia University in New York, indicate BA.2.86, is unlikely to be another game-changer.

"It's reassuring that this is not a variant that's going to pose a huge problem for our soon-to-be-released vaccines," Ho says. "At least from this perspective, it's not as threatening as feared."

Murrell agrees.

"For BA.2.86 the initial antibody neutralization results suggest that history is not repeating itself here," Murrell says. "Its degree of antibody evasion is quite similar to recently circulating variants. It seems unlikely that this will be a seismic shift for the pandemic."

The studies indicate that BA.2.86 doesn't look like it's any better than any of the other variants at evading the immune system. In fact, it appears to be even be less adept at escaping from antibodies than other variants. And may also be less efficient at infecting cells.

"BA.2.86 actually poses either similar or less of an immune escape risk compared with currently circulating variants, not more," Barouch says. "So that is good news. It does bode well for the vaccine."

Moderna released a statement Wednesday saying the company has data indicating its new shot produces a strong immune response to BA.2.86.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve new vaccines soon that target a more recent omicron subvariant than the original shots. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would then recommend who should get them.

While that subvariant, XBB.1.5, has already been replaced by others, it's a close enough match for the new shots to protect people, scientists say.

"I wish the booster was already out," says Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, noting that yet another wave of infections has already begun increasing the number of people catching the virus and getting so sick that they're ending up in the hospital and dying. "We need it now."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.