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What is Pirola? New variant sets ‘alarm bells ringing’

This year, 14,000 people in the UK so far have died after contracting Covid (Jane Barlow / PA)
This year, 14,000 people in the UK so far have died after contracting Covid (Jane Barlow / PA)

The new Covid variant, Pirola, has set "alarm bells ringing" as the disease “shows no signs of stopping”, according to a leading virologist.

This year, around 14,000 people in the UK so far have died after contracting Covid. Professor Stephen Griffin told The Mirror that Covid is far from over. “The perception we're done with it and the narrative of having to live with it is another way of saying we're willing to deal with the damage it does. It’s the opposite of the Emperor’s new clothes, it is there, it’s killing people, and we’re not talking about it.

“None of these elements keeping Covid where it is are stable, and immunity will wain and things can get worse.”

Multiple cases of Pirola BA.2.86 have been detected in the UK, including an outbreak that infected almost every resident and member of staff at one care home.

Professor Griffin said: “It’s obviously successful because it’s spread round the world very quickly against the background of hugely successful Omicron XBB variants.

“The idea that it’ll burn out could happen, but I suspect it won’t... if you look back, the Delta variant was quite similar at the beginning and it had fits and starts, before it really got going. It could reach critical conditions. There are very few sequences at the moment but testing bias is very poor.

“It could be a matter of time [until case numbers take off], it could be it doesn’t become very much itself, but it’s another sign we can’t consign this to being a seasonal flu.

“It’s really hard to tell the future with that, if nothing else, it’ll be a forebearer for other variants that could outcompete the XBBs... we keep saying this, we keep seeing these jumps in evolution for the virus, and it shows no sign of stopping.”

This month, England begun to offer new Covid boosters following the discovery of the Pirola variant.

NHS England is urging people to get both jabs to avoid a potential “twindemic” of flu and Covid, which would put pressure on the health service.

NHS director of vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “The NHS flu and Covid vaccination programmes have been very effective in protecting those at greatest risk and we will work at speed to ensure they are protected once again this year, starting with care homes and those who are housebound today.”

Meanwhile, Moderna, one of the pharmaceutical companies producing Covid-19 vaccines, said its updated jabs provides a strong immune response against BA.2.86.

“Our updated Covid-19 vaccine will continue to be an important tool for protection as we head into the fall vaccination season,” said Stephen Hoge, the president of Moderna. “Moderna will continue to rapidly assess global public health threats and is committed to leveraging our mRNA platform against Covid-19.”

In the US, free Covid tests are available. Each household can order four tests, from COVIDTests.gov. Some experts are once again urging Americans to wear a mask when necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

What is new Covid variant Pirola?

The new variant was first detected in Denmark on July 24. Researchers have made certain discoveries. For instance, they found that Pirola seems to have descended from the Omicron BA.2 sublineage that was responsible for a surge in Covid-19 cases in 2022. According to Yale Medicine, it has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein compared with Omicron variants.

Talking about it to SBS News, the infectious disease physician and clinical microbiologist Paul Griffin explained: “There are more than 30 amino-acid changes to the spike protein, which is similar to what we saw with the emergence of Omicron.

“At least at that very early stage, looking at how it’s composed, that does give us some cause for concern, and certainly is one that we have to watch really carefully.”

What are the symptoms of Pirola?

As the case numbers that are infected with Pirola are low, it is unclear whether the new variant comes with distinct symptoms. The variants seen to date have caused coughing, sore throats, runny noses, fatigue, aches, and altered senses of smell and taste.

Experts also aren’t sure if Pirola is more infectious than the other variants but some scientists said that, given how many new mutations it shows, it is likely not to match the current immunity people have built up to Covid-19 through vaccinations and recovering from the illness.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said: “More data is needed to understand this Covid-19 variant and the extent of its spread. But the number of mutations warrants attention. WHO will update countries and the public as we learn more.”

Why is it nicknamed Pirola?

As for its nickname, Pirola, WHO assigns Greek letters to variants of concern.

The name appears to have been suggested by @JPWeiland, a self-described scientist and infectious disease modeller, on the social media platform X (Twitter). He made a compound word from Pi and Rho, which follow Omicron in the Greek alphabet.

He explained that, as well as the next logical name after Omicron, he named it Pirola “after an asteroid that hangs out by Jupiter”.

However, as one person pointed out on social media, the word is also slang for the male anatomy in Spanish Galician, which may “ensure people in Spanish-speaking countries will not take it very seriously”, according to one tweet.

What should I do if I think I have Covid?

The NHS recommends those who test positive for Covid remain at home and avoid contact with others for five days. If those infected are sharing their home, they are advised to keep their windows open and use a mask in communal areas.

People whose Covid symptoms become severe or who are experiencing chest pain, coughing up blood or becoming breathless should head to A&E or call 999.

When is the latest Covid jab rollout?

Eligible Brits were invited to get their Covid-19 and flu booster earlier than initially planned after the Government confirmed this year’s Covid-19 vaccine and flu jab programme was set to launch earlier for 2023 as a result of the new strain.

Vaccinations began on September 11, instead of October. The hope is that the early rollout can provide greater protection to people at risk.

Millions of eligible people are being invited to get the jabs in the next few weeks. The Government aims to vaccinate as many eligible people as it can across the UK before the end of October.

Dame Jenny Harries, UKHSA’s chief executive, said: “As we continue to live with Covid-19, we expect to see new variants emerge. Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population. However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19.”

Where has Pirola been detected?

There are eight countries where the new variant has been detected. These are Denmark, Sweden, the US, Portugal, South Africa, Canada, Israel, and the UK.

Professor Lawrence Young of the University of Warwick told the Independent that there was “a general misplaced view that there is no longer a need to be worried about Covid”.

He said: “One way of controlling infection is to have at least some idea of where you’re seeing particular outbreaks and might be able to introduce precautionary measures to prevent the virus spreading further — but you have to know where it is.

“This new [variant] is popping up all over the place at the moment but we’re not monitoring it in the population.”