Pirola: A new COVID-19 variant that may evade vaccine immunity

A new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in several countries, raising concerns about its potential impact on the global pandemic. The variant, named BA.2.86, has been nicknamed Pirola on social media, and is said to have a large number of mutations that may help it bypass the immunity conferred by vaccines or previous infections.

What is Pirola and where did it come from?

Pirola is a new lineage of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is one of the 1,680 omicron lineages that have been identified so far, but it stands out for having over 30 mutations in the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that attaches to human cells and allows infection.

Pirola: A new COVID-19 variant that may evade vaccine immunity
Pirola: A new COVID-19 variant that may evade vaccine immunity

The spike protein is also the main target of most COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the natural antibodies produced by the immune system after infection. Therefore, any changes in the spike protein could affect how well the vaccines and antibodies work against the virus.

Pirola was first detected in late July 2021, and since then, it has caused a handful of infections worldwide. According to the global virus database GISAID, nine cases of Pirola have been reported in five countries: the United States, Israel, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Early testing also suggests that Pirola has been detected in U.S. wastewater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Why is Pirola concerning?

The substantial mutations in the spike protein of Pirola raise concerns about potential immune evasion, meaning that the existing vaccines and prior COVID-19 infection may offer less protection against this variant compared to earlier strains of the virus.

The CDC said on Aug. 23 in a risk assessment of Pirola that it may be more capable of causing infection in people who are vaccinated or previously had COVID-19. The CDC added Pirola to its watch list of variants under monitoring, which are those with genetic markers that are predicted or known to affect transmission, diagnostics, therapeutics, or immune escape.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also classified Pirola as a variant under monitoring on Aug. 17, based on the large number of mutations identified. The WHO said that further studies are needed to understand the impact of these mutations on viral properties and the effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

Some experts have expressed alarm over Pirola’s emergence, saying that it could pose a greater threat than other variants. Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said that Pirola is “the most concerning variant we’ve seen” and that it could “potentially make all our vaccines obsolete.”

However, other experts have cautioned against overreacting to Pirola’s discovery, saying that there is not enough evidence yet to determine its significance. Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, told TODAY.com that Pirola is “a highly mutated form of SARS-CoV-2” but that it does not necessarily mean that it is more transmissible or more virulent than other variants.

Pekosz said that more research is needed to evaluate Pirola’s behavior in laboratory experiments and real-world settings. He said that it is possible that some of Pirola’s mutations may actually impair its ability to infect cells or replicate efficiently. He also said that even if Pirola can evade some of the vaccine-induced immunity, it may not be able to escape all of it.

What are the symptoms of Pirola?

The symptoms of Pirola are likely to be similar to those of other variants of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, headache, sore throat, muscle or body aches, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.

However, some people may have no symptoms at all or only mild symptoms. This can make it harder to detect and contain the spread of the virus. Therefore, it is important to follow public health guidelines such as wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, washing hands frequently, and getting tested if exposed or symptomatic.

It is also possible that some people may experience more severe symptoms or complications from Pirola than from other variants. This could depend on factors such as age, underlying health conditions, vaccination status, and viral load. However, there is not enough data yet to confirm this possibility.

How can we protect ourselves from Pirola?

The best way to protect ourselves from Pirola and other variants of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated as soon as possible and complete the full course of doses recommended by health authorities. Vaccination can reduce the risk of infection, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, as well as the likelihood of transmitting the virus to others.

However, vaccination alone may not be enough to prevent Pirola from spreading or causing severe disease. Therefore, it is also important to follow the other public health measures mentioned above, such as wearing masks and social distancing. These measures can help reduce the exposure to the virus and limit its transmission.

Additionally, it may be necessary to get booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccines in the future, especially for those who are at higher risk of severe disease or have weakened immune systems. Booster shots can help enhance the immune response and provide better protection against new variants of the virus.

The CDC has recommended that people who received an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) should get a booster shot eight months after their second dose, starting from Sept. 20. The CDC has also recommended that people who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster shot two months after their single dose, starting from Oct. 15.

However, these recommendations are subject to approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). The FDA and the ACIP will review the safety and effectiveness data of the booster shots before making their final decisions.

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