New COVID Variant BA.2.86: What We Know So Far
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are keeping a close watch on a newly identified COVID strain, BA.2.86, or “Pirola”. With a high number of mutations, this variant has the potential to be quite different from what we’ve seen so far.
What’s the status?
- WHO has labeled Pirola as a “variant under monitoring”.
- The CDC confirmed its presence in the U.S., specifically Michigan. It was first reported in Israel and Denmark.
- The U.K. Health Security Agency also reported a case in England and is looking into it.
What makes it different?
Pirola is believed to have branched out from an early Omicron strain. While most Omicron variants have slight differences, Pirola boasts around 30 mutations. This potentially makes it more adept at evading our immune defenses and infecting cells. In fact, Jesse Bloom, a researcher from Seattle, argues that the difference between Pirola and other Omicron strains is as vast as the first Omicron was from the original COVID strain from Wuhan.
Why the name “Pirola”?
The variant might get the Greek letter “Pi” as its official designation, which led to the nickname.
What’s been observed so far?
Only six cases have been identified worldwide as of now. But with global sequencing currently low, some believe the variant might be present in more areas without detection. The geographically scattered cases, without a travel connection, suggest it might be spreading through communities.
Should we be concerned?
Not necessarily. Although the variant has numerous mutations, it’s uncertain if it’ll result in more severe cases or significantly alter our prevention strategies. Some posit that even if it spreads, it might not result in as severe an outbreak as previous waves.
Dr. Stuart Ray of Johns Hopkins mentioned that despite its unique genetic makeup, we’re still uncertain about its overall impact on severe cases or our current medical strategies.
Where did it come from?
Experts theorize that Pirola evolved in an immunocompromised patient, as these situations often give the virus ample time to mutate. What’s unusual, however, is that variants from such cases usually don’t spread widely. The discovery of Pirola in a non-immunocompromised patient in Israel suggests it’s made the jump to the broader population.
What about vaccines and treatments?
Questions linger about how Pirola will interact with upcoming vaccines and our existing immunity. However, the vast number of mutations suggest it might be better at evading our defenses. That said, the broader immune response, including T-cell immunity, might still prove effective. Plus, treatments like the antiviral Paxlovid should still be effective against it.
The bigger picture:
U.S. COVID stats show a rise in hospitalizations and deaths. The CDC reported an increase in hospitalizations by 14% from July 30-Aug. 5 and an 8% rise in deaths from Aug. 6-12. Globally, COVID cases have surged by 63% from mid-July through mid-August, but the actual infection rate might be higher due to decreased testing worldwide.
To sum it up, Pirola has caught the attention of health officials, but it’s still early days. Monitoring and research will provide clearer insights into its potential impact.