What is known about the Pirola variant of the coronavirus?

In its September epidemiological update, the World Health Organization reiterated that it was monitoring seven SARS-CoV-2 variants, and BA.2.86 (referred to by some in the scientific community as Pirola) is one of them.  

The earliest reporting of this sub-variant was from Denmark, late-July. WHO designated BA.2.86 as a new variant under monitoring, mid-August. As the coronavirus continues to circulate and evolve, the UN Health agency has urged countries to strengthen surveillance, sequencing, and reporting of SARS-CoV-2 variants. 

In fact, in his briefing this week, WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, globally, there was not one variant that was dominant. The variant of interest EG.5 is on the rise, he said, while the XBB subvariants are declining.  

The BA.2.86 variant has been detected in small numbers in 11 countries, he said, and WHO was monitoring this variant to assess its transmissibility and potential impact.

What is the point of concern with this variant?

The BA.2.86 is an offshoot of the Omicron variant that had resulted in a spike in cases, though mortality had been low.  

Scientists across the world are not ringing alarm bells yet on this variant, but as winter approaches in developed countries - governments are looking to advance their adult vaccination for flu and Covid-19 in senior citizens and those at risk (with compromised immunity)..

Are existing Covid-19 vaccines such as Covidsheild effective against it?

This is work in progress. International companies like Moderna claim, their updated mRNA vaccine is effective against the latest variant.

In India, there has been no advisory from the government on existing vaccines and the evolving virus. Health officials maintain, no cases of BA.2.86 have been detected here.  

Indian vaccine-makers too have not said if their vaccines are effective against BA.2.86.  

Since people have been vaccinated or infected with Covid-19, this variant is unlikely to cause mortality, similar to the Delta variant, for instance, say epidemiologists, although there could be an increase in cases.

Vaccines at the dynamic pace of an evolving virus, is a difficult task. There are recombinant variants, off-shoots of earlier variants etc, explains an epidemiologist, urging authorities to enforce public health / hygiene measures - including handwashing and maintaining well-ventilated indoor spaces.

Are the number of cases in this variant going up globally?

There is an increase reported from the United Kingdom and the United States, for example. The WHO chief also pointed to the concerning trend of Covid-19, ahead of winter in the northern hemisphere.  

Deaths are increasing in parts of the Middle East and Asia. ICU admissions increased in Europe and hospitalisations were increasing in several regions, he said.  

But data is limited. Only 43 countries – less than a quarter of WHO member States – are reporting deaths to WHO, and only 20 provide information on hospitalisations.

Scientists say, in the absence of accurate reporting from countries, it is difficult to get a clear picture on the increase in cases and what was causing it.

The WHO chief, however, said, the increase in hospitalisations and deaths show that Covid-19 is here to stay, and authorities will continue to need tools to fight it.

What actions are other governments taking to protect their citizens? 

The UK government, for instance, is reported to be advancing its schedule to vaccinate senior citizens for Covid-19 and flu. Adult vaccination against seasonal flu, ahead of winter, is an annual practice in several developed countries.

What has been the Indian government’s response to Pirola?

Since India has not reported the ‘Pirola’ variant, it has not brought in additional surveillance at airports etc, even as the G20 event gets underway, with people coming in from various countries.

In fact, reports quoting the White House said, US President Joe Biden would follow the Covid-19 guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during his India visit for the G20 Summit. The announcement came after reports said First Lady Jill Biden tested positive for Covid-19, earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Indian health officials said routine sentinel surveillance continued across the country to pick up any changes in trend.