A new COVID-19 variant has been raising the alarm among health experts, though less than 30 cases have been confirmed worldwide.
BA.2.8.6, also known as “Pirola”, has over 30 mutations and is the “biggest” evolution for the virus since Omicron, which caused a massive wave that resulted in millions of deaths in 2021.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted a new risk assessment, the new “Pirola” variant has a greater chance of causing breakthrough infections in those who were vaccinated or previously infected, compared to other current COVID-19 strains.
However, the CDC also emphasized that there’s no evidence that the new mutation will cause more severe disease than other variants. The upcoming COVID-19 booster shots should also protect against “Pirola”. However, it’s still too soon to know whether or not it will spread faster than other circulating variants.
According to infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, who works at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, there will always be “a march of variants.” However, he pointed out that what matters most is whether or not the new mutation will have transmission advantages over the previous variants and the ability to cause serious illness.
He also believes that there is a low chance the new variants will lead to serious disease at the scale that it once could as a considerable amount of the population already has immunity. Drugs such as Paxlovid also help.
How Is BA.2.8.6. Different From Other Variants?
BA.2.8.6, which is currently being monitored by experts, is different from its relative BA.2. by 34 mutations. This means it is “heavily mutated”, according to Dr. Adalja, though it doesn’t always translate to a significant change in behavior.
The most likely scenario is that the genetic changes will allow the variant to dodge the body’s immune system, even if someone was previously infected or has been vaccinated.
Maria Van Kerkhove, a technical lead who works for the World Health Organization, said in a media briefing that it’s difficult for experts to know how quickly the new variant can spread as surveillance and viral testing has dropped off in many countries worldwide.
Assuming that “Pirola” circulates widely, the WHO may classify it as a “COVID-19 variant of concern”, meaning that the organization will give the mutation a new Greek letter name so it can be distinguished from other COVID-19 variants.
Will Vaccines and Medical Treatments Be Effective?
A group of advisors from the CDC will meet up later this month to review the efficacy and safety data for the new vaccine, which will be rolling out later this fall. It will target the XBB.1.5. Omicron variant, which was the prominent variant earlier this year.
The more recent variants that have been circulating in the U.S., such as EG.5., are only different from XBB.1.5. by a few mutations.
The vaccine’s ability to neutralize BA.2.8.6. is currently being tested in the laboratory setting. While it’s not expected to prevent infection, it is expected to lower the risk of hospitalization, serious illness, and death.