A new, multiply-mutated form of Covid has popped up, spawning some alarming, clickbait headlines. But I’m not overly concerned, and I’ll certainly be off to wish my 102-year-old grandmother “happy birthday” shortly. Here’s why.
Dubbed BA2.86, the new Omicron spin-off comes hot on the heels of the EG5.1 “Eris” variant – named after the Greek goddess of strife – which first elbowed itself onto the Covid scene in July. Eris is accounting for about 15 per cent of the Covid-19 cases we’re seeing at the moment. Some have suggested that, combined with summer travel, bad weather keeping people indoors, and waning population immunity, Eris might be behind the recent uptick in cases.
BA2.86, on the other hand, has been detected in only a few countries so far, including Israel, the US and Denmark. Last week, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed one case in this country. This new variant doesn’t earn itself a Greek letter for a name, but instead scientists have nicknamed it “Pirola”, a moniker allegedly adopted from social media after an asteroid that loiters between Mars and Jupiter.
Cause for optimism
Reassuringly, the recorded cases of the new variant have not been more clinically extreme than other circulating forms of the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling BA2.86 a VUM – variant under monitoring – because there’s no evidence that it’s linked to any increase in disease severity or enhanced spread. It’s this that would earn Pirola the title of a VOC – variant of concern – at this stage.
Like Eris, Pirola should also be detectable with a lateral flow test. The guidance for what to do if you think you have it remains the same as for other forms of Covid-19: stay home, manage the symptoms – which include cough, running nose, headache and a temperature – with simple remedies like paracetamol.
Whether Pirola will end up in our orbit and be linked to an outbreak, or is destined to remain consigned to the wilderness in virological space, is impossible to say at this stage with only six cases so far to go on.
Nevertheless, we can make some predictions about its likely behaviour based on reading its genome. Plus, based on the geography of the detections so far, we can infer that it’s probably been circulating at low level for a while, which is also in some ways reassuring. The UKHSA’s statement that the UK case had no known travel history – suggesting they had picked it up in the community – supports this.
The genetic code of the variant is what has sparked the interest of the research community. This shows that Pirola is without doubt another chip off the Omicron block, but it’s shot through with genetic changes – more than 30 – which are clustered in those parts of the virus that affect how it appears to our immune systems, and how it gets into our cells.
This could have the effect of endowing the virus with the ability to side-step our existing immunity to a greater or lesser extent, making infection, and hence transmissions and outbreaks, more likely.
That said, some of the changes identified are known to undermine the performance of the virus, limiting its growth and spread. So it’s not a given, just because it carries a large cargo of mutations, that it is destined to cause trouble. It may well, as some commentators are predicting, “just fizzle out”.
This presentation has all the hallmarks of a virus bred in an immunocompromised person, probably in a resource-poor part of the world with limited diagnostic surveillance. Scientists suspect that Omicron, and the Kent variant (Alpha) before that, emerged this way earlier in the pandemic.
So why am I unconcerned at this stage? The reassuring features are that very few cases have been detected so far despite what must amount to a reasonable degree of international spread. Also, three years on from the origin of the pandemic, the majority of the world population now has existing immunity to Covid-19 owing to vaccination, infection, or both. And while this may not entirely prevent infection, it provides a sufficient immunological foundation to mean that most people, if they encounter the virus, are no longer destined to develop severe disease.