Health Canada is monitoring a new COVID-19 variant that has been detected in several countries, officials have confirmed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) added BA.2.86 to its list of COVID-19 variants that are under monitoring on Thursday.
While there are no cases of BA.2.86 confirmed in Canada yet, Health Canada told CTVNews.ca that it’s also monitoring for any cases that may arise.
“The Government of Canada has a strong monitoring program in place with the provinces and territories to identify COVID-19 variants in Canada,” the federal health department said in an emailed statement Monday.
“Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) scientists, along with national and international experts, are actively monitoring and evaluating BA.2.86 lineages and their associated studies.”
The new variant has been detected in Denmark, Israel and the U.S. since late July, according to the open global genome sequencing database GISAID.
Epidemiologists and infectious disease experts maintain that the emergence of this new variant is not yet reason to be concerned.
“People should be cautious about jumping to premature conclusions,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto-based infectious disease expert, during a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Monday.
“As it stands, we’re at six genotypes from four countries on three continents. That’s all,” he said. “So we know what the genetic make-up is and there are components of that that raise an eyebrow for sure, but that’s about all we know.”
Bogoch explained that this emerging variant deviates from more recent mutations of COVID-19.
“There were components of this mutation that were reminiscent of BA2, which we saw much earlier on in the Omicron era,” he said. “There were [also] components similar to Delta mutations.”
Since the detection of this mutation is still early, Bogoch said that not enough information is known about BA.2.86’s transmissibility.
“We don’t know anything about what we would call virulence – how hard a punch [a variant] like this would pack.”
Bogoch added that detection tactics such as wastewater surveillance have proven “extremely important.”
“Genotyping,” a component of pathogen surveillance networks, allow scientists to observe changes in viruses in multiple regions – through waste water or clinical diagnosis – and then share data to open source public networks, he explained.
Dr. Tyson Graber, a research associate at the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa who has helped detect prior variant mutations in wastewater research, further emphasized that it’s too soon to tell how transmissible the virus will be.
“BA.2.86 is not yet contributing to the current wave that has begun in many locations in Europe, the U.S. and here in Canada,” he wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca. “But clinical and wastewater surveillance networks in Ontario are providing the public with excellent situational awareness as we head into an uncertain fall pandemic period.”
According to WHO, all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time.
“Most changes have little to no impact on the virus’s properties. However, some changes may affect the virus’s properties, such as how easily it spreads, the associated disease severity, or the performance of vaccines, therapeutic medicines, diagnostic tools, or other public health and social measures,” the organization’s website reads.
Bogoch believes the important part of this new COVID-19 lineage is that these cases were “detected early.”
“They were shared globally rather quickly,” he said. “And we’ll learn a lot more about this in the coming weeks as more genomes are uploaded to the system. It’s too soon to know whether this is going to amount to anything or not.”