The emergence of a BA.2.86 variant, nicknamed Pirola, has pushed Covid back into the mainstream once again.
Not too much is known about this particular strain yet, but its genetic make-up has some scientists concerned.
The descendant of the Omicron variant was first found in Denmark and Israel in July, but has since been detected around the world, even in people who have no recent travel history – thus suggesting it is circulating in communities.
So, here’s what we know so far about this new strain, and just how prepared the UK is for it.
The good news
1. Testing and vaccinations are to be increased
Testing and surveillance is to be scaled up in England in response to the variant.
Amid worries that immunity – either through vaccines or through infection – might be waning, leaving the population more vulnerable to any new waves, the government has decided to increase testing once again.
Vaccine manufacturer Moderna has also revealed that its updated booster is effective against Pirola, although it still has to go through regulators.
2. There’s not been a large jump in hospitalisations
Case numbers are rising, but it not currently causing a big rise in hospitalisations. There are around 1,000 cases a day in England, and the Covid-related death rate is at around 11 per day. So cases are increasing, but they started from a very low baseline.
BA.2.86 is also still at low prevalence even though it’s been detected around the world. It’s not yet known if it has replaced existing dominant strains in countries where it’s been found.
3. Experts expect immune systems to still recognise Covid
T cells should be able to recognise the variant – meaning you may still get infected, but you should be able to avoid severe infections.
4. Another lockdown is not likely
Many commentators have suggested that lockdowns impacted the UK too deeply through the NHS, the economy and the country’s general wellbeing. So, it’s generally believed that we’ll rely on vaccinations and prior infection immunity for now.
5. Lateral flow tests will still detect them
Gonzalo Bearman MD, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University Health, told VeryWell Health, that Covid rapid tests are “no more or less effective with the current strains”.
Lateral flows detect surface proteins, not the spike protein which often mutates. But, you should always make sure you’re storing them correctly, and check they’re not expired, to make sure they’re effective.
Rapid tests can still detect all of the current Covid strains.
The bad news
1. Covid has not settled into a seasonal pattern yet
It might never do so – meaning it’s harder to predict exactly when there will be spikes, like with seasonal illnesses such as the flu. Instead, Covid’s success will depend on the same factors we’re used to by now; how much mingling we’re all doing and what air ventilation is like.
“It was thought that Covid-19 would end up being a seasonal illness like flu but this has not yet happened,” Professor Adam Finn, of Bristol University, told The Guardian. “The virus is still evolving quickly and new waves are appearing throughout the year.”
2. Pirola has a lot of mutations
The reason Pirola is causing alarm is because of its mutations (usually after hanging around in an immunocompromised patient’s body for a long time).
The number of mutations it has over Omicron echoes the mutations Omicron had over the original variant, which is why it was able to become the dominant strain so effectively. But, it’s not clear if these Pirola mutations will result in a whole new wave.
3. Vaccines are still only available to the most vulnerable
This includes those over 65, those in clinical risk groups, frontline health and social care workers. Booster jabs are not yet privately available – although they might be in the future. This jab will target the original virus strain and the more recent Omicron variants.
4. We have fewer ways to keep tabs on the virus
The Office for National Statistics Covid Infection Survey was disbanded in March. It used to offer estimates of infections within the community. Without it, it’ll be harder for anyone to keep track of any further infections.
Although the UK Health Security Agency is upping surveillance on the virus once again, they are not yet in place.