A new coronavirus variant is grabbing the attention of health experts across the globe due to a striking number of genetic differences that set it apart from previous versions of the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says this new variant, officially known as BA.2.86 and nicknamed “Pirola” on social media, may be more capable of infecting people with prior immunity, though it’s unclear at this time whether those infections would result in more severe illness.
This new variant is not yet widespread. Only two cases of COVID-19 caused by BA.2.86 have been confirmed in the U.S., with a few others confirmed in Denmark, Israel, South Africa and the United Kingdom, according to an Aug. 23 risk assessment from the CDC. Its arrival, however, coincides with a late-summer COVID-19 surge that has put the virus back on the minds of many.
After several months of steady decline, COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen in recent weeks, and wastewater surveillance suggests cases are increasing, too. Deaths from the illness are also up by about 21 percent, federal data shows, though they remain low compared with previous surges.
Mutations put the variant ‘high on radar screen’
All viruses change over time, including the one that causes COVID-19. These changes can affect how contagious a virus is or how well it responds to treatment, the CDC explains, which is why scientists keep close tabs on the coronavirus’ evolution.
What’s concerning about BA.2.86, however, is that it has a lot of changes — there are more than 35 mutations relative to the omicron strains that have recently been circulating. According to the CDC, that’s a difference that is more in line with those seen between the initial omicron variant and its predecessor, delta.
“This is an insane amount of change at once,” epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina wrote in a recent Substack post examining BA.2.86.
The location of these mutations matter too, says Andy Pekosz, a professor of microbiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “A lot of those mutations are in areas where we know antibodies bind to the spike protein,” which is what the virus uses to enter our cells.
“Those mutations are on important sites that would cause this virus to evade a lot of the vaccine and previous infection-induced immunity,” Pekosz says. “So that's why that variant is really high on our radar screen.”
Treatments, tests and vaccines still work
That doesn’t mean the tools we have are necessarily powerless if this variant becomes more widespread. Experts say existing tests used to detect the virus, and medications used to treat COVID-19, should still be effective when it comes to BA.2.86.