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A new COVID variant nicknamed “Pirola” has been detected in Australia after sparking a sped-up vaccination program in the United Kingdom.

A new variant in itself is not unusual — viruses evolve and change over time, and new mutated versions pop up frequently.

However, this one caught the attention of scientists.

What is BA.2.86, aka the Pirola variant?

According to the British Medical Journal, Pirola appears to have evolved from the Omicron subvariant BA.2, which was widely circulating in early 2022. 

One case has been detected in Australia, in a laboratory in Western Australia, genomic sequencing data shows.

However, there could be more out there because only a fraction of all COVID-19 infections get submitted to for testing.

WA’s health department said the case in Australia was “closely related – without significant differences – to those BA.2.86 strains reported from other countries”.

The World Health Organization labelled BA.2.86 a “variant under monitoring” — which means they’re keeping a close eye on it — in mid-August.

It has not been formally called a “variant of concern” yet or given a Greek name like Omicron or Delta.

Pirola is an informal nickname the variant received on social media from a community who track COVID variants.

Where did this new variant come from?

While new variants emerge all the time, scientists became interested in this one because of how mutated it was compared to its predecessor

It has 33 changes to its spike proteins — the pointy part of the virus that infects human cells — compared to BA.2, analysis from China found.

To put that into context, that’s the same magnitude of changes that made Omicron so distinct from the Delta variant which dominated the world in late 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control said. 

An illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle showing the protruding spike proteins on the virus's surface.
BA.2.86 has 33 spike protein mutations compared to its predecessor, BA.2.(Pixabay: BlenderTimer)

It’s also a degree of change you’d normally see over several generations of a virus, rather than in one fell swoop, Kirby Institute virologist Stuart Turville said.

“I call them [variants like BA.2.86] ‘parachutes’ — they kind of land and appear out of the middle of nowhere,”

Professor Turville said.

There are a few theories for where it came from, but most scientists agree that it likely evolved over several months in someone with a chronic infection, University of New South Wales applied mathematician James Wood said.

What are the symptoms of the new COVID strain Pirola?

Despite all the mutations, scientists say BA.2.86 so far does not appear to be behaving too differently to other variants. 

There have been no reports that it causes different symptoms to previous variants, Africa’s Centre for Disease Control said.

There has also been no evidence that BA.2.86 causes increased transmission or a greater risk of severe disease and hospitalisation, it said.