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Lab data suggests new COVID booster will protect against worrisome variant

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A lot of people have tested positive for COVID lately - among them, first lady Jill Biden. Amid that surge, we have some useful news. New data show a variant of the virus is unlikely to pose a big threat. Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When scientists first spotted the new variant, known as BA.2.86, it set off alarm bells, even though it's rare. That's because BA.2.86 had mutated like crazy - on par with the original omicron, which caused a massive surge - raising fears BA.2.86 could sneak around the immunity people had from all their infections and vaccinations and cause yet another huge, deadly wave. Ben Murrell has been studying the variant at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

BEN MURRELL: When something heavily mutated comes out of nowhere and there's a lot of uncertainty and there's this risk that it's dramatically different, then it changes the nature of the pandemic.

STEIN: But the first studies to analyze how well our immunity can neutralize the variant came out over the weekend and indicate BA.2.86 is unlikely to be another game-changer. At least four preliminary laboratory experiments found that antibodies people have in their blood from getting vaccinated or infected with one of the more common variants that are already circulating widely can block BA.2.86. Moderna said Wednesday its booster generates a strong response to the variant.

MURRELL: For BA.2.86, the initial antibody neutralization results suggest that history is not repeating itself here. 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.

STEIN: Because, it turns out, 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 less adept at escaping from antibodies than other variants and may also be less efficient at infecting cells. Dr. Dan Barouch has been studying the variant at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

DAN BAROUCH: BA.2.86 actually poses either similar or less of an immune escape risk compared with current circulating variants, not more. So that is good news. That is reassuring. It does bode well for the vaccine.

STEIN: 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 will then recommend who should get them. While that subvariant, called XBB.1.5, has already been replaced by others, it looks like a close enough match to protect people. Dr. Peter Hotez at the Baylor College of Medicine hopes as many people as possible will get the new vaccines as quickly as possible.

PETER HOTEZ: I wish the booster was already out. That's - my only concern is we need it now.

STEIN: Because 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.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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