Authorities in at least two Australian states have raised concerns about a new coronavirus subvariant which has reared its head amid a surge in COVID-related hospital admissions.
The number of Queenslanders in hospital with a COVID-19 infection has swelled to 146, twice what it was just two weeks ago.
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In South Australia, COVID-related hospitalisations have tripled to more than 60.
Queensland Health said the spike in virus cases was for the most part due to low booster rates in elderly people and “possibly” the emergence of COVID subvariant BA.2.86, nicknamed Pirola.
“We are seeing a clear increase in COVID-19 transmission in Queensland at the moment,” Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard said.
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“The number of people hospitalised with the virus has doubled over the past two weeks and I expect hospital admissions will rise in the coming week.”
7NEWS reports vulnerable groups in South Australia, where nine cases of Pirola have been detected, have been told the current vaccines may not work for all, with a more effective jab on its way – hopefully by the end of the year.
“For those who are at risk… it is important they protect themselves. The new vaccine is the best way to do that,” epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said.
Until then, he said face masks should be a consideration when in public.
What is BA.2.86 or “Pirola”?
Pirola is an offshoot of Omicron subvariant BA.2, which the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said was behind widespread COVID cases in early 2022.
Pirola was first detected in July and was designated as a variant “under monitoring”, not a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization the following month.
It means it will be reviewed, monitored and tracked.
Why are scientists on guard?
The large number of mutations that could “help it neutralise the immune system” has forced authorities to take notice.
Mutated forms of COVID have been at the heart of infection waves in the past and one expert said: “the only other time we’ve seen such a large genetic shift was the initial transition from Delta to Omicron, which led to the most hospitalisations and the most deaths of any surge in the pandemic”.
Francois Balloux, director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, said “BA.2.86 is the most striking SARS-CoV-2 strain the world has witnessed since the emergence of Omicron”.
But she tempered concerns by saying that even in a worst-case scenario “we are not expecting to witness comparable levels of severe disease and death (as) we did earlier in the pandemic”.
How severe is it?
Common symptoms identified include a runny nose, headache, sore throat, sneezing, changes to your sense of smell and taste, and fatigue. Less common indicators of infection include skin rashes, itchy eyes and diarrhoea.
It is understood no global deaths have been attributed to the Pirola strain and “scientists do not expect it to be much different from previous Omicron strains”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other global bodies, are confident vaccines will be able to protect against serious illness caused by the variant.
“Scientists are evaluating the effectiveness of the forthcoming, updated COVID-19 vaccine. CDC’s current assessment is that this updated vaccine will be effective at reducing severe disease and hospitalisation,” the CDC said in a statement.
It added: “Importantly, the early evidence suggests the variant does not appear to be rapidly increasing or driving increases in infections or hospitalisations in the United States.”
The Australian government’s advice on immunisation and boosters from February remains in place.
Gerrard said now is a good time for people over 65 years of age to get a booster. He said others who haven’t had an additional dose of the vaccine in 2023 should also book one.
“COVID-19 has not established a predictable seasonal pattern as yet and it continues to mutate, which is why we all need to be vigilant,” he said.
“In addition to getting vaccinated, Queenslanders need to stay home when sick and regularly wash their hands to minimise the spread of COVID-19,” Gerrard said.
Where has it been detected?
The variant was first reported in Denmark in late July and later identified in Israel, Portugal and the US, with dozens of countries including Sweden, Spain, France and South Africa also recording cases.
There are understood to have been at least 18 cases of Pirola in Australia, according to the COVID genome database GISAID.
The first infection was detected in September in Western Australia following genomic sequencing on a local case.
A lag in the collection of data and the fact not all cases are submitted for testing suggests it could be circulating even more widely.
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