Pirola to become Britain’s next dominant Covid variant, experts claim, after cases almost double in a month
Pirola is ‘likely’ to become Britain’s dominant Covid variant, experts have warned, as cases of the virus almost doubled to more than 90,000 in a month.
Scientists suspect the Omicron spin-off strain’s catalogue of more than 35 mutations could help it to evade immune defences, driving up infections.
Experts fear this could mean Pirola, scientifically known as BA.2.86, poses a potential threat to the NHS as the health service heads into the normally busier autumn period.
However, they added that many of these genetic quirks are similar to other Omicron descendants, meaning many Brits should still have good protection from being severely ill from an infection.
There is also little evidence to suggest Pirola is any more of a threat than the dozens of strains that have come before it before fizzling out, they said.
Pirola’s arrival comes as Covid cases take off once again, sparking concerns that the UK is on the brink of another wave just as the country heads into the winter when the NHS is busiest. NHS hospital data shows daily Covid admissions have risen almost 30 per cent since June, with a seven-day rolling average of 322 as of August 25, compared to 251 on June 7
While virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint BA.2.86 specific symptoms, its ancestor BA.2 had some tell-tale signs. Experts aren’t yet certain, however if it behaves like similar Omicron subvariants, the signs to watch out for include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue
Professor Paul Hunter, a respected infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia told MailOnline: ‘Bottom line is it is likely to become dominant.
However, he added it is ‘not possible to say how much it will push up total infections and especially the incidence of severe disease’.
He said: ‘As we head towards Christmas I would expect infections to increase whether or not we had this new variant so disentangling everything may still prove somewhat difficult.’
Four known Pirola cases have been confirmed in the UK by health officials to date.
But alarm bells have been raised because three of the cases had not left the country, so must have caught it in Britain.
Global cases of the Pirola have doubled in the last week and has now been detected in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa , Portugal, Sweden, France, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland. Health experts fear it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected
Details surrounding the fourth case have not yet been disclosed.
This has raised fears the virus is already spreading within the community.
These concerns were amplified last week when Public Health Scotland (PHS) confirmed Pirola had also been found in wastewater testing, in an undisclosed part of the country.
Scientists can test community wastewater samples to monitor the prevalence of the virus through the stools of infected people.
Last week officials also confirmed Covid testing and community surveillance is set to be ‘scaled up’ ahead of this winter, after originally scaling it back.
Experts were alarmed by the new spin-off of Omicron because of the 35 mutations on its spike protein, the part of the virus that Covid vaccines are designed to target.
But reassuringly Professor Hunter added that as many of the mutations ‘have been seen previously in other variants’, Brits should already have some protection against them.
However, he added it is still unclear what effect the variant’s novel mutations, or a combination of mutations would have.
‘It is still impossible to say one way or the other about transmissibility,’ he said.
‘On balance, it is likely to be able to out compete other circulating variants but whether it will generate a huge wave of infections is difficult to say.’
‘As we have seen will all variants since Delta, new variants have not been associated with much if any increased severity — needing supplementary oxygen or hospitalisation.
Office of National Statistics data released on Wednesday shows there were 74 Covid deaths registered across the two countries in the week ending August 11. This was a 57 per cent rise on the 47 logged in the previous seven-day spell. But for comparison, this is just a fraction of January’s toll, when cases soared to pandemic highs and deaths peaked at 654
‘This is in part because the parts of the virus that the immune system targets when preventing severe disease hasn’t changed as much with new variants.’
‘This is also because of the fact that almost everyone has survived at least one and probably multiple Covid infections already.’
It comes as Covid cases in the UK have almost doubled in a month to nearly 93,000 new infections a day.
Data from the ZOE health study shows there were 93,432 new daily cases of symptomatic infection on September 2 – up from about 50,000 at the start of August.
The study, which is based on data from millions of users of the ZOE app, estimates there are around 1.17million people in the UK with the virus right now – roughly one in 57.
Last month UKHSA officials designated Pirola ‘a variant for the purposes of tracking and assessment’, just a day after World Health Organization officials said they were ‘monitoring’ the strain.
At the time, the UKHSA’s variant technical group said the ‘appearance of the variant rapidly in multiple countries’ in individuals who had not left their respective countries suggested there was ‘established international transmission’.
During another meeting last week it confirmed the UK’s three known BA.2.86 cases were identified through hospital testing and ‘have no known recent travel history’.
The group is tasked with forecasting scenarios of Covid variants and producing assessments on the risk of emerging strains.
‘The first UK case was mildly unwell and the second UK case — in England — did not have respiratory symptoms’, they said.
A third case in Scotland however was symptomatic.
But officials noted there was no laboratory data available yet, with two of the UK samples currently ‘in culture’.
They added: ‘Neutralisation and other phenotypic data is still likely to be one to two weeks away at minimum in the UK.’
While there is still ‘uncertainty about the impact of the mutations present’, the strain does not yet meet the definition of a ‘variant of concern’, they said, and ‘at present there are a wide range of possibilities for the fitness and growth’ of Pirola.
PHS today confirmed a second case in Scotland — and fourth for the UK — had been identified through PCR testing.
‘The early identification of a second case of BA.2.86 within Scotland is not unexpected and provides the opportunity for an enhanced investigation to increase understanding of the variant’s transmissibility,’ Dr Nick Phin, director of public health science at PHS, said.
Globally Pirola has been spotted in the US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa, Portugal, Sweden, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland.
Concerns over the variant led to health officials u-turning on the autumn Covid and flu jab drive start date, bringing it forwards from October to September 11.
Officials have also confirmed Covid testing and community surveillance is set to be ‘scaled up’ ahead of this winter.
Covid and flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic
The announcement, made last week, comes ahead of the return to school and university for many students after the summer break.
Indoor gatherings are also expected to rise as winter approaches — all factors known to increase the risk of respiratory infections, including Covid, spreading.
Despite concerns there is currently no evidence that Pirola is any more of a threat than the dozens of strains that have come before it.
Virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint if BA.2.86 has any new specific symptoms, as scientists are still analysing the recently discovered cases.
Professor Francois Balloux, a vocal Covid commentator throughout the pandemic, from University College London, told MailOnline: ‘Based on the tiny number of BA.2.86 cases diagnosed to date there is no evidence for, but also no reason to expect, a significant shift in symptoms.’
But early expert analysis shows Pirola may be more capable of causing infection in people who have had Covid or have been vaccinated against it.
Last week the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also confirmed its genetic leap ‘is roughly of the same magnitude’ as seen between the initial Omicron variant and the Delta variant.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, also told MailOnline: ‘Very recent work suggests that this variant is likely to be more able to evade the immune response.
‘However, BA.2.86 appears to be less infectious than previous variants which is some good news.’
Late last month, Steve Russell, NHS England’s chief delivery officer and national director for vaccinations and screening said: ‘While it is difficult to predict the combined effect of the large number of mutations on severity, vaccine escape and transmissibility, expert advice is clear that this represents the most concerning new variant since Omicron first emerged.’
He added: ‘The UKHSA has determined the most appropriate intervention with the greatest potential public health impact is to vaccinate all those eligible, quickly.’
Scientists have recommended a return of pandemic mitigation measures, including mask wearing, and increased ventilation because of the virus’ resurgence.
Others have instead urged Ministers to re-consider vaccine eligibility criteria, after the Government ditched plans last month to offer the jabs to under 65s this winter.
According to the CDC, existing tests to detect and medications used to treat Covid — such as Paxlovid, Veklury, and Lagevrio — appear to be effective with BA.2.86.
Brits have also been urged to continue testing for the virus if they begin displaying symptoms to help reduce the chance of spreading it to other people.