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Why a New COVID-19 Variant Has Scientists Worried

Highly Mutated New COVID-19 Variant BA.2.86 Raises Concerns

COVID-19 variant EG.5 just became the most common variant in the U.S., but public health officials are already talking about another variant. It’s called BA.2.86, nicknamed “Pirola,” and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say they’re “gathering information” on it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also added BA.2.86 to its list of “currently circulating variants under monitoring,” raising a lot of questions about what Pirola is and how concerned people should be about it. Here’s what you need to know as COVID-19 cases continue.

What is COVID variant BA.2.86, dubbed “Pirola?”

BA.2.86, a.k.a. Pirola, is a new subvariant of Omicron that’s been detected in select locations around the world. According to the WHO, it was first sequenced on July 24.

Pirola is a descendent of BA.2, according to an analysis from the Bloom lab, which studies the evolution of viruses and proteins. It has a lot of mutations: There are 34 mutations in the spike protein of BA.2.86—which the virus uses to infect a person’s cells—from BA.2, Bloom lab says.

Why do people care about this particular variant? It has a lot of changes, with Bloom noting that it has “many spike amino-acid mutations relative to its BA.2 parent, and is an evolutionary jump similar in size to that which originally gave rise to Omicron.” Meaning that it’s another, potentially substantial, mutation of the novel coronavirus.

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BA.2.86 symptoms.

There have only been seven cases of BA.2.86 detected so far, making it tough to make too many conclusions about symptoms. However, infectious disease doctors say signs of the illness are not wildly different from previous versions of the virus. “The symptoms would be the same as with any other version of SARS-CoV-2,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

According to the CDC, those may include:

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Where is BA.2.86 spreading?

Again, as of press time, there have only been seven cases of BA.2.86 detected in the entire world. However, these cases have been relatively spread out. “It has been identified in several sequence samples on different continents,” Dr. Adalja says.

Global virus database GISAID says Pirola has been detected in the following countries:

  • Denmark (3)
  • USA (2)
  • Israel (1)
  • United Kingdom (1)

Of course, this doesn’t mean these are the only cases of the variant that have taken place—they’re just the only ones that have been genetically sequenced and detected.

It’s important to note that the WHO Public Health Emergency of International Concern ended in May and the U.S. Public Health Emergency’s genomic sequencing and testing have been reduced, potentially creating a lag in reporting.

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How contagious is BA.2.86?

It’s tricky to say at this point. “It is unclear whether it has a transmission advantage at this point or what its ultimate trajectory will be,” Dr. Adalja says.

An analysis from the Bloom lab found that there are 34 mutations in the spike protein—which the virus uses to infect a person’s cells—from BA.2.

“At this point, we don’t know for sure if it’s going to result in an increased number of cases,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. But when a virus mutates substantially, the possibility that it will evade existing protection from prior infection or vaccine increases. This is one reason why COVID boosters continue to evolve alongside the virus.

Is there a vaccine booster for BA.2.86?

That’s also up in the air. The fall boosters were based on Omicron variant XBB.1.5, and Bloom notes that BA.2.86 has 36 mutations from the spike protein of XBB.1.5.

“The mutations that it possesses would likely pose problems for the current and future formulations of the vaccines,” Dr. Adalja says. “However, it is unclear—at this time—if this is going to actually spread in a manner that will be significant.”

If you are concerned about COVID-19 infection, handwashing, wearing a well-fitted Kn95 or N95 mask, and staying up to date with COVID boosters will help protect against the virus.

Also see: Flu Symptoms vs COVID-19 Symptoms

Should I be worried?

Doctors stress that it’s really too soon to tell what will become of BA.2.86, if anything.

But Bloom notes that BA.2.86 has “at least as much antibody escape” as XBB.1.5 (the previous dominant strain of Omicron) relative to BA.2, which was known as “stealth Omicron.” What that means and if this will spread remains to be seen.

This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.

Remember, this blog provides general information and should not replace professional medical advice. If you’re unsure if your symptoms may be related to COVID-19, it’s always best to take safety measures. Stay home if you’re not feeling well to prevent the spread of infection and contact your health care provider if you’re experiencing concerning symptoms. For more information on COVID-19, visit or call our Nearest Emergency Room for the immediate medical help. We have board-certified physicians, nurses and staff to help you recover and give appropriate treatment and medical advice.

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