02.03.2024

Patient is hospitalised in London with heavily-mutated ‘Pirola’ strain

Virus-tracking researchers detected the Omicron spin-off – given the placeholder name BA.X or BA.2.86 – in a patient hospitalised in London. UKHSA bosses did not reveal exactly how many cases have been spotted so far. Only six cases of the strain – first spotted last month – have been detected so far worldwide, in the US, Denmark and Israel

A heavily-mutated Covid variant dubbed the ‘real deal’ is already in the UK, health officials confirmed today amid fears it could trigger a fresh wave.

Virus-tracking researchers detected the Omicron spin-off – nicknamed Pirola but also known scientifically as BA.X/BA.2.86 – in a patient hospitalised in London.

Alarm bells were raised because the unidentified patient is thought to have caught the strain within the UK.

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) bosses did not reveal exactly how many cases have been spotted so far.

But top scientists claim the discovery means ‘we can be pretty sure it’s circulating more widely’.

Pirola’s official 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.

Only six cases of the strain – first spotted last month – have been detected so far worldwide, in the US, Denmark and Israel.

But virologists are unsettled because of the catalogue of mutations it carries on its spike protein, the piece of the virus vaccines were designed to target.

Others, however, have warned it’s far too early to panic. No evidence shows Pirola is any more of a threat than the dozens of strains that have come before it.

Immunity levels built-up through vaccine roll-outs and previous waves are high and over time the virus has evolved to become less deadly, allowing society to treat it in the same way as the flu without pandemic-era restrictions.

BA.X's official 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 in England have increased on average by almost a fifth in week, rising from a 7-day rolling average of 258 on August 4, to 308 on August 11, according to the latest figures available

BA.X’s official 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 in England have increased on average by almost a fifth in week, rising from a 7-day rolling average of 258 on August 4, to 308 on August 11, according to the latest figures available

Other variants flagged as troublesome have just fizzled out naturally.

Ministers have vowed they will never deploy curbs wielded during the darkest days of the crisis in 2020 and 2021 unless a doomsday variant emerges which sends the world back to square one.

Alarm bells over Pirola were first rung earlier this week after a prominent online virus-tracker spotted cases initially crop up in Denmark.

The discovery came just a day after the same lineage was detected in Israel.

Yesterday the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also confirmed a case in Michigan, meaning the strain has now been detected in three continents.

Denmark also logged another case today, its public health institute, the Statens Serum Institut, revealed this afternoon.

The three Danish cases ‘are from different parts of the country, and do not appear to have had contact with each other’, it said, indicating community transmission.

Dr Meera Chand, deputy director of the UKHSA told MailOnline: ‘We are aware that BA.2.86 has been detected in the UK.

‘UKHSA is assessing the situation and will provide further information in due course.’

Dr Luke Blagdon Snell, a physician specialising in infectious diseases and microbiology, claimed a patient at Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London had the strain.

The infection had been acquired ‘locally’, he said.

Dr Blagdon Snell later added there was no ‘immediately obvious’ connection between the UK case and others seen across the world.

It is also unconfirmed if the patient was hospitalised because of the strain or they were just coincidentally ill.

Dr Duncan Robertson, a senior policy  and strategy analytics academic at Loughborough University also tweeted: ‘BA.2.86 has been found in England.’

The member of the group Independent SAGE added: ‘Severity and transmission important, and UKHSA will be working very hard to determine this.

‘Dependent on this, it may be wise to review vaccination eligibility.’

A process called ‘sequencing’ allows scientists to find the exact genetic make-up of every virus sample.

Early tests show BA.X carries more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.

This is the same piece of the virus that vaccines are designed to target.

Several have unknown functions but others are thought to help the virus evade the immune system.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, told MailOnline: ‘BA.2.86 is of concern to doctors and scientists because of the high number of mutations in its spike protein which acts like a key for the virus to unlock our cells.

‘It’s also the target for the vaccines, so changes in the spike might mean changes in the way the virus behaves.

‘Mutations sound scary, but don’t necessarily mean that we’re in for trouble.

‘However, we mustn’t be complacent, we now know how to deal with Covid and could mount a relatively quick response if needed.’

Covid hospital admissions jumped in the week to August 13. There were 3 virus hospitalisations per 100,000 people in England, up from 1.2 per 100,000 four weeks earlier (thick black line with dots)

Covid hospital admissions jumped in the week to August 13. There were 3 virus hospitalisations per 100,000 people in England, up from 1.2 per 100,000 four weeks earlier (thick black line with dots)

He added: ‘Now that this variant has been found in a London hospital, we can be pretty sure that it’s circulating in the population more widely.

‘What we don’t know is by how much or in whom and we don’t know how much of a problem it’s going to cause as we move towards autumn and winter.’

Meanwhile, Professor Francois Balloux, a vocal Covid commentator throughout the pandemic, from University College London, labelled Pirola ‘the most striking SARS-CoV-2 strain the world has witnessed since the emergence of Omicron’.

He said: ‘Over the coming weeks we will see how well BA.2.86 will be faring relative to other Omicron subvariants.

‘Even in the worst case scenario where BA.2.86 caused a major new wave of cases, we are not expecting to witness comparable levels of severe disease and death than we did earlier in the pandemic when the Alpha, Delta or Omicron variants spread.

‘Most people on earth have now been vaccinated and/or infected by the virus.

‘Even if people get reinfected by BA.2.86, immune memory will still allow their immune system to kick in and control the infection far more effectively.’

Professor Balloux added, however: ‘A large wave of infection by BA.2.86, or any future comparable variant, would be an unwelcome event.’

In Denmark, the Statens Serum Institute said it was testing the virus to assess whether it poses a threat.

However, it stressed there is currently no evidence that Pirola causes more severe illness.

The CDC also said it was tracking the variant after it was picked up in Michigan.

The strain was originally highlighted earlier this week by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’.

Following confirmation of the UK case, paediatrician Dr Vipin Vashishtha, who was one of the first to raise the alarm about Covid strain Arcturus in India earlier this year, tweeted: ‘It seems BA.2.86 is the real thing—now detected from the London, England also.

‘The fifth case in total. The seriousness of this issue can be gauged that WHO has already declared it a variant under monitoring, based on only three sequences.’

Yesterday, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and lead for the Covid response at the WHO, cautioned there is very limited information available on the strain.

But she said it needs monitoring due to its large number of mutations.

Surveillance and sequencing is ‘critical’ to detect new variants and track known ones, she added.

Admission rates jumped in all age groups apart from 15 to 24-year-olds. Levels were highest among the over-85s (32.6 per 100,000) and 75 to 84-year-olds (15.7 per 100,000)

Admission rates jumped in all age groups apart from 15 to 24-year-olds. Levels were highest among the over-85s (32.6 per 100,000) and 75 to 84-year-olds (15.7 per 100,000)

Confirmation of the variant in the UK also comes amid a surge in cases of the virus in the country.

Covid hospitalisation rates are already starting to shoot up, sparking concern that the UK is on the brink of being hit by another wave.

The increase in infections follows the arrival of another variant, nicknamed Eris.

Eris, scientifically known as EG.5.1, made up 25.7 per cent of all sequenced cases in England the week to July 30, health bosses confirmed yesterday.

UKHSA bosses noted that the prevalence was up from 14.6 per cent a fortnight earlier.

However, experts say it shows no sign of being more dangerous than other strains circulating, including its fellow ancestor Omicron.

NHS hospital data shows daily Covid admissions in England have increased on average by almost a fifth in week, rising from a 7-day rolling average of 258 on August 4, to 308 on August 11, according to the latest figures available.

Hospitalizations had been freefalling nationally since March, from a peak of almost 1,200.

The beginning of July however, saw these numbers begin an uptick, rising slightly.

But, current admission levels are nowhere near levels seen earlier in the pandemic, when a high of 4,100 admissions were logged per day.

And, as time has worn on, fewer and fewer hospital admissions are directly down to the virus. Instead, many patients are just coincidentally ill.

What is the new variant? How dangerous is it? And is it more infectious than other Covid strains? What we know so far about Pirola

What is the strain?

The spin-off strain has been nicknamed Pirola but is also known scientifically as BA.X/BA.2.86.

One epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, tasked with tracking viral threats like Covid, said earlier this week that the variant could be dubbed ‘Pi’, the letter which follows Omicron in the Greek alphabet — the system officials use to name new strains.

Viruses constantly change through mutation and sometimes these mutations result in new variants.

Where has it been spotted?

Alarm bells over Pirola were first rung earlier this week after a prominent online virus-tracker spotted cases initially crop up in Denmark.

The discovery came just a day after the same lineage was detected in Israel.

Yesterday the CDC also confirmed a fourth case had been detected in Michigan.

Today the UKHSA revealed BA.2.86 had been detected in the UK. But it did not reveal exactly how many cases have been spotted so far.

Denmark also logged another case today, its public health institute, the Statens Serum Institut, revealed this afternoon.

The three Danish cases ‘are from different parts of the country, and do not appear to have had contact with each other’, it said, indicating community transmission.

This means the strain has now been detected in three separate continents.

The variant also follows the arrival of another strain, nicknamed Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1.

Why has it sparked concern?

Pirola was originally highlighted by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner earlier this week, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’.

Meanwhile, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent SAGE, said: ‘To everyone else very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in 2 countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’

Experts believe the variant has over 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.

Some scientists have already called for the return of face masks and a change to Covid vaccine eligibility in the UK because of the spin-off variant.

However, others have warned that it is too early to panic and that lockdowns or other pandemic-era restrictions won’t be needed.

In Denmark, the Statens Serum Institute said it was testing the virus to assess whether it poses a threat.

But, it stressed there is currently no evidence that Pirola causes more severe illness.

How deadly are the symptoms?

A rise in cases could put health services under pressure.

Typically Covid symptoms are known to include a high fever, cough, cold and loss of the sense of taste or smell.

However, there are no signs yet the newly discovered variant, which is different to Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1, poses any more of a danger than others, including its ancestor Omicron.

Do the vaccines still work?

It is still unclear whether the new variant has any increased ability to evade protection from vaccines compared to other Omicron spin-offs.

Even if the vaccines do not work perfectly against the variant, immunity is likely to still hold up, with most Brits also having been exposed to former Omicron variants.

High levels of protection against the virus gave ministers in the UK the confidence to ditch all Covid measures last year as the country moved to living with the virus.

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