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New ‘Pirola’ Covid variant is rapidly spreading, leaving US doctors worried

A new, rapidly spreading coronavirus variant has sounded alarm bells for public health experts in the United States amid a rise in cases across the country.

Doctors warned that the BA.2.86 variant – unofficially called “Pirola” – may be cause for concern as it is a newly-designated, highly-mutated variant of Omicron which triggered a surge in cases in a number of countries including the US.

According to a Thursday bulletin in Yale Medicine, the new variant has more than 30 mutations to its spike protein – located on the outer surface of a coronavirus – which helps it enter and infect human cells.

“Such a high number of mutations is notable,” infectious disease specialist Dr Scott Roberts said. “When we went from [Omicron variant] XBB.1.5 to [Eris] EG.5, that was maybe one or two mutations.

“But these massive shifts, which we also saw from Delta to Omicron, are worrisome.”

The high number of mutations could mean the variant can evade the body’s immune responses, triggered either by infection or vaccination.

“Nobody knows right now, but studies are ongoing,” Dr Roberts said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) preliminary report on the BA.2.86 variant says there’s currently no evidence “Pirola” causes more severe illness, death or hospitalizations.

The BA.2.86 variant has been detected in Denmark, Israel, Canada, Sweden, the UK, and the US. It first appeared in the US in August.

As of 30 August, the “Pirola” variant has been identified in at least four states – New York, Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan.

The fact that the strain has been detected in at least six countries, and the cases are not related, “suggests some degree of transmission in the [international] community that we’re not detecting,” Dr Roberts explained.

“The big question is if BA.2.86 will have the same exponential growth that Omicron did – in terms of case numbers – or if it will die out, which is certainly what everyone hopes,” he said.

The silver lining, according to Dr Roberts, is that “the world is not as vulnerable to severe illness or infection” from Covid-19 as in 2020 because there’s a greater degree of herd immunity due to either vaccination or past infection.

“However, for many of us, it might have been a year or more since we’ve had a booster, so I would encourage everyone to get the updated shot, which is expected to come out in mid-September,” he said.

Updated Covid vaccines will become available in the US this month amid fears over the EG.5 or “Eris” which is a subvariant of Omicron and the dominant strain in America right now.

These boosters are being developed to specifically target the Omicron variant and may also help reduce cases of severe disease and hospitalisation from “Pirola”, according to the CDC.

“My guess is that it will also offer an added layer of protection from infection, but it won’t be one hundred percent,” Dr Roberts wrote.

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