Health officials are closely monitoring a new variant of Covid-19 that has raised concerns due to its potential ability to evade immunity from vaccines and previous infections.
Introducing BA. 2.86: Meet Pirola
Dubbed Pirola on social media by a group of scientists known for naming significant variants, BA. 2.86 is the official designation of this new strain.
What Makes BA. 2.86 Worrisome?
Scientists are particularly worried about Pirola because it has more than 30 gene mutations on its spike protein. These mutations could enhance its ability to invade cells and cause illness. However, it is still unclear whether the strain is more infectious or causes different or more severe symptoms compared to other circulating Covid-19 variants.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has not assigned an official name to BA. 2.86 yet and currently classifies it as a variant “under surveillance,” one level below variants of interest or concern. The WHO is urging countries to monitor and report cases of this variant. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. has already identified at least two cases of Pirola.
In contrast, another strain called Eris was designated as a “variant of interest” by the WHO in early August due to a surge in Covid cases and hospitalizations.
Global Presence: Where Has it Been Detected?
Pirola has been detected in several countries, including Denmark, Israel, South Africa, Portugal, and the U.K. What is concerning is that some of these cases have occurred among individuals who have not had contact with each other or recently traveled.
Currently, 11 cases of BA. 2.86 have been identified and its genetic material has been sequenced according to the global virus database GISAID. The variant has also been found in wastewater samples in the U.S., Switzerland, and Thailand.
Due to limitations in Covid surveillance, including testing, tracking, and gene sequencing, it remains uncertain how rapidly or extensively Pirola is spreading.
Analysis: The Worrisome Nature of the New Covid-19 Variant
The emergence of a new Covid-19 variant, known as Pirola, has sparked concerns among scientists and health experts. While the full extent of its infectiousness and potential impact on vulnerable individuals is still unknown, it is crucial to closely monitor and understand its characteristics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that there is currently no evidence indicating that Pirola causes more severe illness. However, this assessment may change as more data becomes available.
Impact on Vaccines: Will They Be Effective?
With the development and distribution of updated Covid-19 vaccines underway, questions have arisen about their effectiveness against Pirola. The vaccines awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration were initially designed to combat earlier variants of the virus. However, as newer strains, such as EG.5 or Eris, gained prominence, concerns about their efficacy arose.
Moderna and Pfizer, two prominent vaccine manufacturers, have reported that their booster shots still provide significant protection against EG.5 despite being designed to target the XBB.1.15 variant. It is important to note that Pirola, although a descendant of the Omicron variant, differs significantly from it genetically – comparable to the genetic difference between Omicron and the original strain from Wuhan.
Insights from Scientists
Leading virologist and professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Jesse Bloom, suggests that Pirola may be more widespread than currently identified due to incomplete surveillance efforts. Multiple sequences of the variant have been detected in various countries. On the positive side, Covid-19 treatments like the antiviral medication Paxlovid are expected to remain effective against Pirola as they target different parts of the virus rather than the spike protein.
Furthermore, the CDC assures that the updated vaccines will continue to effectively reduce the severity of the disease and hospitalization rates. In terms of testing, the rapid antigen tests commonly used for at-home Covid-19 testing should be able to detect Pirola, according to the CDC.