Spiking COVID Variants Could Cause Worse Lung Damage, New Research Shows

One of JN.1's ancestors was the focus of two recent studies.

COVID concerns are top-of-mind this winter, especially with the new JN.1 variant making the rounds in the U.S. and across the globe. But while this variant is dominating headlines, it's not the only one you can contract. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), JN.1 was indeed the dominant variant as of Jan. 6, but BA.2.86, an ancestor of JN.1, is in the number five slot. And though it might not be on top any longer, it's just as concerning: According to new data, BA.2.86 may cause more severe lung damage. Researchers say the same could hold true for its currently surging descendant.

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Two studies published this month studied BA.2.86, Fortune Well reported. In the first study, published Jan. 8 in Cell, researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) created a pseudovirus (a lab-created variety that isn't infectious).

While data showed that the variant was neutralized by vaccine-induced antibodies in the blood, it also showed that BA.2.86 has an increased ability to infect cells that line the lower lung (epithelial cells) and fuse to cells more efficiently, according to an OSU press release. Both traits are "linked to severe disease symptoms," the release states. Fortune Well also noted that features are similar to the pre-Omicron strains, which were known to be more lethal.

"BA.2.86 appears to have increased infectivity of human lung epithelial cells compared to all omicron variants, so that's a little worrisome," senior study author Shan-Lu Liu, PhD, a virology professor in the Department of Veterinary Biosciences at OSU, said in the OSU release.

Researchers in Germany and France published a separate study in Cell on Monday, presenting similar findings. Data showed that BA.2.86 was different from other Omicron sublineages in that it could enter lung cells "with high efficiency" and was "highly resistant" against therapeutic antibodies. Study authors noted that this makes BA.2.86 similar to early COVID lineages and may "constitute an elevated health threat as compared to previous Omicron sublineages," per Fortune Well.

The first Omicron variant was considered milder than the original COVID-19 virus, but experts can't be entirely sure whether this is true, Fortune Well reported. Those infected with Omicron may have been vaccinated or infected with earlier COVID versions, and therefore avoided more severe illness.

In addition, Omicron variants tended to infect the upper airway as opposed to the lower airway, where earlier COVID strains accumulated and caused severe disease, per Fortune Well. But it now appears that Omicron descendants like BA.2.86 and potentially JN.1 can infect that same lower area, which could lead to more concerning cases.

RELATED: These Are the 9 Symptoms of the New JN.1 COVID Variant, Doctors Say.

OSU researchers noted that their results need to be confirmed using the "real virus," and experts remain unsure about whether COVID infections are actually becoming more severe due to waning immunity, Fortune Well reported. (After three to six months, antibody immunity from a COVID vaccine or a past infection declines.) However, concerns remain thanks to BA.2.86's increased infectivity of the lung cells.

"From our past experience, we know that the infectivity in human epithelial cell lines provides very important information," Liu said in the release. "The concern is whether or not this variant, as well as its descendants including JN.1, will have an increased tendency to infect human lung epithelial cells similar to the parental virus that launched the pandemic in 2020."

Liu also pointed out that JN.1 is more resistant to antibodies than its ancestor, BA.2.86. Compounding this, there could be even more variants, as coronaviruses are "prone to viral recombination," leading to new variants and "huge numbers of mutations that could have increased immune evasion but also disease severity," he explained.

"That's why surveillance of the variants is still very important, even though we are in the end of year four of the pandemic," Liu concluded.

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Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
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