Pirola Covid variant could be more deadly than previous strains, reveals worrying study

New study shows how one Covid-19 variant works differently from previous strains.

New Covid variant may be more deadly than previous strains
New Covid variant may be more deadly than previous strains

For some, Covid seems a distant memory. For others, like this couple who were severely impacted by long Covid, it is still a reality in their day-to-day lives. Now, research is showing that a new Covid variant that is causing a resurgence in hospital admissions may be more deadly than previous iterations of the virus.

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BA.2.86 - or Pirola - is a highly mutated variant of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant. It’s also the ancestor of the JN.1 strain which is responsible for more than three in five Covid cases as of January 6 2024.

A new study carried out by The Ohio State University has uncovered a characteristic of the Pirola variant that has been dubbed ‘worrisome’. This comes as rising cases of Covid-19 in the US have pushed health care systems across several states to bring back the mask mandate.

Study shows Pirola variant could be more deadly

The study found, through lab tests, that BA.2.86 can infect cells in the lower lung and enter cell membranes more efficiently than other versions of Omicron. Dr Shan-Lu Liu, senior author of the study and professor of virology at The Ohio State University explained:

The concern is whether or not this variant, as well as its descendants, including JN.1, will have an increased tendency to infect human lung epithelial cells similar to the parental virus that launched the pandemic in 2020.

The significance of the virus reaching the lower lungs lies in the severity of its impact: upper respiratory infections tend to affect the throat and sinuses while lower respiratory infections target the airways and lungs. This means that a virus that infects these lower areas is likely to be more serious and last longer.

It is important to note that these experiments were conducted using pseudoviruses - a non-infectious part of a virus surrounded by different Covid-19 proteins on the surface constructed to match known variants. Dr Liu explained that the findings of the study need to be confirmed with the real virus to confirm any firm findings.

While the lab results suggest this strain could be more deadly, this has not been reflected in recent data as BA.2.86 started circulating in the US in August 2023 and since then, Covid deaths have actually remained low.

Mask mandate reinstated in the US

Meanwhile, Forbes has reported a spike in what is being called the ‘tripledemic’ - a simultaneous rise in Covid, flu, and RSV cases. This has led to a rise in hospitalisation. According to CDC data, there were 29,095 Covid-related hospitalisations reported in the US during the week ending December 23, 2023.

This showed a 16.7% increase compared to the previous week. Indeed, the Illinois Department of Public Health urged people to wear masks in healthcare facilities last month. Several hospital systems have followed suit, with Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center announcing last Tuesday that masks would be required in certain areas by visitors, patients and staff alike.

JN.1, the offspring of Pirola, is causing the highest number of cases. Its rapid spreading was named ‘an emerging risk to global public health’ by the WHO in December 2023.

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Sources used:

Forbes: Here’s Where Mask Mandates Are Coming Back As Covid Cases And Hospitalizations Rise

Mail Online: New fast-spreading Covid variant may be more deadly than earlier versions, 'worrisome' study warns

Covid-19: Health study reveals worrying statistics on how fast the new variant is spreading Covid-19: Health study reveals worrying statistics on how fast the new variant is spreading