In a world already grappling with the Omicron variant, a new highly mutated strain of COVID is causing a stir among health officials. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have turned their focus to this newly identified variant, known as BA.2.86 or "Pirola". The variant, which is thought to have evolved from an earlier strain of Omicron, is currently being monitored due to its potential to become the next major player in viral evolution, provided it manages to propagate widely.
The CDC and the WHO have both confirmed that they are tracking "Pirola", a variant that has been detected not only in the U.S., but also in Israel and Denmark. What sets this variant apart is its significant divergence from its predecessor. Unlike most new variants that have a few mutations making them slightly different from the last, BA.2.86 boasts over 30 mutations, potentially making it more immune-evasive and capable of infecting cells more easily. This alarming development has led experts to draw parallels between BA.2.86 and the original COVID strain, underscoring the gravity of the situation.
Tracking New COVID-19 Strain: The "Pirola" Variant
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have their eyes on a new COVID-19 variant. This highly mutated strain, referred to as BA.2.86 or "Pirola", is currently under monitoring by global health organizations. Experts are concerned it could signify a significant step in viral evolution if it gains traction.
Pirola: A New Variant Under Monitoring
The WHO has classified Pirola as a "variant under monitoring", which is the lowest of their three-tiered alert system. The "variants of interest", which are of greater concern, include the "high flying" variants EG.5, XBB.1.5, and XBB.1.6. Omicron, however, remains the only "variant of concern", the highest level of alert.
According to the CDC, Pirola has already made its way to the U.S., Israel, and Denmark, where it was first reported. Unlike most circulating variants, which have evolved from the Omicron spawn XBB, BA.2.86 is believed to have evolved from an earlier Omicron strain, BA.2, or possibly from the original Omicron, BA.1.1.529.
A Wildly Different Variant
What sets Pirola apart from other variants is its significant genetic divergence from its predecessor. Most new variants usually feature a few mutations that make them slightly more transmissible. BA.2.86, however, boasts over 30 mutations that distinguish it from Omicron BA.2. These mutations could potentially make it highly immune-evasive and increase its ability to infect cells, according to Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle.
The level of distinction between Pirola and other Omicron strains is said to be as great as the difference between the first Omicron and the original COVID strain.
The Potential Next Greek Letter
This level of difference means Pirola has the potential to be the next variant awarded a Greek letter by the WHO—likely Pi. "What sets this one apart from the many other Omicron subvariants is that it exhibits a large number of mutations… far more than we usually see," said Ryan Gregory, a biology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
As of Friday, only five sequences of the variant had been identified in four countries. However, given that global sequencing is at an all-time low, it’s likely the variant is going undetected in other countries.
It’s crucial to keep a close eye on this new variant. Its high mutation rate could potentially make it more immune-evasive and infectious. As global health organizations continue to monitor and study Pirola, the public must remain vigilant and continue to adhere to preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.