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How risky is Pirola, the highly mutated new COVID-19 variant? Here’s what the CDC says

Not a lot is known, but agency now says updated vaccines are coming faster than expected

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Valorie Mitchell, a Salt Lake County Health Department paramedic, gives Jason Mettmann a COVID-19 vaccination.

Valorie Mitchell, a paramedic with the Salt Lake County Health Department, gives Jason Mettmann a vaccination during a free COVID-19 vaccination and testing clinic at the Tongan Methodist Church in West Valley City on Oct. 15, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It’s too soon to say what to expect from a new strain of COVID-19 that’s already being called “alarming,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but updated vaccines are now coming earlier than anticipated as cases continue to climb.

The federal agency’s risk assessment for the BA.2.86 variant that’s been dubbed Pirola warned it “may be more capable of causing infection in people who have previously had COVID-19 or who have received COVID-19 vaccines.”

The initial assessment is that there is no evidence the new variant makes people sicker, but hospitalization rates for the virus are being closely monitored “to identify any potential early signals that the BA.2.86 variant is causing more severe illness.”

The increase in hospitalizations nationwide for COVID-19 — more than 21% weekly as of mid-August — “is not likely driven” by the new variant, the CDC said, adding that assessment could change as more data becomes available.

As of Wednesday, the day the risk assessment was posted, nine BA.2.86 cases had been identified — three in Denmark, two in South Africa, one in Israel, one in the United Kingdom and “at least” two in the United States.

The CDC said one of the U.S. cases was someone detected through a federal program that tests nasal swab samples voluntarily provided by international travelers arriving at participating airports.

The agency did not provide further details, but a British tabloid, the Mirror, reported that case was an asymptomatic woman returning to Virginia from Japan who was tested on Aug. 10.

The other U.S. case was found by the University of Michigan. News source Bridge Michigan reported the state health department there said the infected person is from the Ann Arbor area and is an older adult with mild symptoms who was not hospitalized.

The CDC also said there’s a preliminary indication the BA.2.86 variant was present in a U.S. wastewater sample “collected as part of routine monitoring in the National Wastewater Surveillance System” but did not specify where.

So far, the new variant has not been detected in Utah, which sequences samples weekly that are collected from sewage treatment plants throughout Utah as well as from positive tests for the virus.

“It’s a matter of time,” Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, told the Deseret News earlier this week after testing Monday didn’t turn up the new variant.

Oakeson called Pirola’s more than 30 mutations “alarming” because it’s comparable to the sudden changes seen in the omicron variant that drove cases to record levels in Utah in early 2022.

The CDC said there are still questions about the transmissibility of BA.2.86, which, like other variants currently circulating, descended from omicron but noted it has already jumped across multiple continents.

“At this time, we don’t know how well this variant spreads, but we know that it spreads in the same way as other variants,” the risk assessment said. Topping the list of recommended precautions is getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

The latest update to the virus vaccine, formulated to target an earlier omicron variant, XBB.1.5, also known as Kraken, will be available as early as of mid-September at doctor’s offices and pharmacies, the CDC said, if it receives federal authorization.

Previous estimates suggested it might take until October to roll out what the government has said will be an annual COVID-19 vaccination for most Americans around the same time as their yearly flu shot.

The faster schedule comes as COVID-19 is on the rise nationwide.

Other precautions advised by the CDC to protect against the new variant are:

  • Staying home when you are sick.
  • Getting tested for COVID-19 if needed.
  • Seeking treatment if you have COVID-19 and are at high risk of getting very sick.
  • If you choose to wear a mask, wearing a high-quality one that fits well over your nose and mouth.
  • Improving ventilation.
  • Washing hands.