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Why a New COVID-19 Variant Has Scientists Worried

Rapid mutations could make the BA.2.86 strain, nicknamed Pirola, better at infecting people

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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.

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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.

The CDC also expects that the updated vaccines, due out in mid-September, will “be effective at reducing severe disease and hospitalization,” even in the wake of the genetic differences, though evaluation of just how well they’ll work against BA.2.86 is ongoing.

“Vaccines oftentimes will continue to protect against severe disease, even if they lose the ability to protect against infection,” Pekosz says. When it comes to BA.2.86, “we're hoping that it can't evade enough to really cause very severe disease at a high rate,” he says.

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Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that the forthcoming vaccines target the variants that are currently driving infections in the U.S., like Eris (EG.5) and other XBB strains.

“So right now, the plan for rolling out the vaccine and getting a vaccine looks pretty good because it's well-matched to the vast majority of [variants] that are circulating right now,” Pekosz says.

Get a COVID-19 plan in place

While health experts don’t yet know how well BA.2.86 spreads, they do know that it spreads in the same way as previous variants, meaning the same measures used throughout the pandemic to cut down on transmission still work for BA.2.86.

Make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines, the CDC says. Stay home if you are sick, and wash your hands often. And with COVID-19 cases climbing, and cold and flu season right around the corner, consider wearing a mask again in crowded indoor areas if you have stopped, Pekosz says.

“If you want to protect yourself, masks are one of the things that you can do if you're in that highly vulnerable population,” he adds.

It’s also a good time to check your stock of COVID tests (and check their expiration dates), so that if you come down with symptoms, you’ll have some on hand. If you test positive for COVID-19, you may be eligible for antiviral treatments, which can help keep a mild infection from turning more severe.

“Now's not the time to panic or to fear the worst,” Pekosz says. “Now's the time to really sort of say, ‘What would I do if I was positive for COVID? Do I have a home test? How would I get antivirals? And when would I get the vaccine when it comes out?’ Because those are all things that we know limit severe COVID.”

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