Will Nasty COVID Variant ‘Pirola’ Be Another ‘Omicron’?
5 September 2023
EIRNS—Early results of the first two laboratory studies of the scary “Pirola” variant of COVID-19 (BA.2.86) have just surfaced. It indeed seems to be able to escape the immunity that populations may have from previous infections or from vaccines, but there is hope that the world has escaped a bullet, this time.
[Pirola](https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/new-covid-variant-ba286-pirola), so tagged as a combination of the two Greek letters after “omicron”—“pi” and “rho”—appeared on the scene about five weeks ago with more than 30 mutations in its spike protein. This is the closest to the game-changer level of omicron, which had about 50 mutations, with 32 of them in the spike protein. (Most new variants have 1-5 such new mutations.) Such an intense reconfiguration has a much better possibility of the spike attaching, e.g., to human cells; hence, of spreading infection.
Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist Scott Roberts, MD, was quoted in Aug. 31 Yale Medicine bulletin: “Such a high number of mutations is notable. When Omicron hit in the winter of 2021, there was a huge rise in COVID-19 cases because it was so different from the Delta variant, and it evaded immunity from both natural infection and vaccination.”
Roberts also explained another concern, that, since the strain has been picked up in at least six countries and the cases are unrelated, it “suggests some degree of transmission in the [international] community that we’re not detecting.” On that transmissibility Roberts said: “Nobody knows right now, but studies are ongoing. But these massive shifts, which we also saw from Delta to Omicron, are worrisome.”
The Biomedical Innovation Center at Peking University tested a mock-up of Pirola against cells that had immunity from vaccines and cells that had immunity from recent infections. Researcher Yunlong Cao reported late last week that there was a twofold drop in the neutralization of the Pirola variant (compared to most other present variants).
Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that antibodies in the blood of human donors collected in late 2022 could not effectively stop Pirola; however, antibodies from donors collected only a week ago did a better job. The principal researcher Benjamin Murrell posted: “Overall, it [Pirola] doesn’t appear to be nearly as extreme a situation as the original emergence of Omicron. It isn’t yet clear whether BA.2.86 [Pirola] (or its offspring) will out-compete the currently-circulating variants, and I don’t think there is yet any data about its severity, but our antibodies do not appear to be completely powerless against it.”
The former White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha commented on these two reports: “The news is better than I was expecting. And makes me more encouraged that the new upcoming vaccine will have a real benefit against current dominant variant (EG.5) as well as BA.2.86.” The latest U.S. vaccine is due around mid-September, and is targeted at EG.5 and its cousins. The concern is whether it will have a chance against Pirola.
More studies of Pirola are going on in labs. The race is on. As of the latest genomic sampling (for the week ending Aug. 19), only about 2.86% of known COVID infections are estimated to be from Pirola. As of Aug. 30, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the variant has been identified in at least four states in the U.S. in samples from either people or wastewater. [dms]