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New COVID variants may evade current treatments—or render them entirely ineffective, experts say

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Future COVID variants are expected to be more transmissible and perhaps better at evading the immune system. And they might even render treatments for patients like monoclonal antibodies “less effective,” the World Health Organization’s pandemic lead said Thursday.

“We’re still at risk for future variants, and we don’t know what the character” of those variants will be, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said at a news conference

Van Kerkhove said that the WHO is keeping an eye on Omicron variants BA.5—currently dominant globally—and its descendents, in addition to BA.2.75, also known as “Centaurus,” and its spawn, BA.2.75.2, among others.

The international health organization is tracking about 200 Omicron subvariants, she said, adding that the virus “continues to circulate at an incredibly intense level around the world.”

Already a handful of those variants have been flagged by experts as having the potential to cause, or at least contribute to, a COVID wave this fall and winter.

And one—BA.2.75.2—is particularly concerning for its potential to thwart the last monoclonal antibody treatment left in the COVID arsenal: Bebtelovimab.

Monoclonal antibody treatments, given to patients via infusion at a medical facility after they test positive, can block a virus from entering cells, and, thus, may limit the amount of viral spread in one’s body. Other similar COVID treatments like REGEN-COV have been sidelined because they’ve been found ineffective against Omicron.

“For the immunocompromised right now, having monoclonal antibodies is one of the best ways to mitigate infections,” Dr. Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Jonesboro, Ark., told Fortune earlier this week.

“If you take the tool away, it’s going to be a problem.”

It’s unknown exactly how effective the new Omicron boosters might be against BA.2.75.2, if they’re effective at all.

But a new paper released this week by researchers at the Imperial College in London and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden highlights the new strain’s “extensive escape” ability. It called the Centaurus spawn “the most neutralization-resistant variant evaluated to date,” and said it may also effectively evade immunity built by vaccination and prior infection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said in an interview this week that BA.2.75.2 appears “suspicious that it might start to evolve as another variant” of concern, when discussing strains with the potential to fuel a fall wave.

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