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New COVID-19 variant spreads internationally

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International health officials are closely following a new version of COVID-19 as it spreads to more countries.

The version, or variant, is called BA.2.86. Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) say it has already been identified in several countries, including the United States, Switzerland, South Africa, Israel, Denmark and Britain

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently spoke to reporters about the latest COVID-19 developments. He said the new COVID-19 variants show that the virus remains a health threat around the world.

Tedros noted the latest data show that COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are decreasing. But he added that the agency had seen “increasing reports of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths in some countries.” ICU is a short form for the term intensive care unit, part of a hospital that cares for very sick patients.

Maria Van Kerkhove is with the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program. She said that, as of last week, only about 10 cases of the BA.2.86 variant had been found worldwide. But Van Kerkhove added that health officials are worried because the variant appears to have more than 30 genetic mutations.

She said the WHO is currently trying to closely follow the movements of the latest virus variants. The efforts include taking wastewater samples from different cities to follow where COVID-19 is spreading In addition, such methods can help officials learn how fast current variants are spreading and how severe they are. “Governments cannot drop the ball,” Van Kerkhove said.

Health officials say BA.2.86 broke off from the Omicron variant, which has been spreading in the U.S. at least since last year. It was first discovered in Denmark on July 24.

Some international scientists have said that while it is important to keep following BA.2.86, the variant was unlikely to cause a new, harmful wave of infections. This is because much of the population has built up defenses against COVID-19 because of vaccinations or previous infection.

Scientists are currently testing how effective newly created COVID-19 vaccines will work against BA.2.86. Van Kerkhove noted that in the past, vaccines have been better at preventing severe sickness and death than blocking re-infections. U.S. health officials said earlier this month the latest COVID-19 vaccines are set to be released sometime in September.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) completed a risk report on the new variant last week. The report said BA.2.86 may be capable of causing infection in vaccinated people and those who had COVID-19 before. But officials noted there is so far no evidence that the new variant is causing more severe sickness than earlier ones.

The WHO said COVID-19 testing has dropped by 90 percent worldwide from the highest point of the pandemic. Testing rates have also fallen sharply in the U.S., and genetic sequencing is down by around 90 percent, said Dr. Ashish Jha. He served as the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator until June 2023.

Jha said data from hospital stays, emergency room visits, deaths, wastewater testing and sequencing efforts had given health officials improved information about current virus spread. (VOA)

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