What is Pirola? Vaccine to counter Covid variant in UK now available

The numbers of people infected with Pirola are currently low  (Jane Barlow / PA)
The numbers of people infected with Pirola are currently low (Jane Barlow / PA)

England has begun to offer new Covid boosters following the discovery of the new virus variant that has caused widespread concern.

Health officials across the globe had been monitoring the spread of the new, highly mutated strain of coronavirus for a while before the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed that the BA.2.86 variant had made its way to Britain.

Now, those aged 65 and over, people in at-risk groups, and the immunosuppressed will be invited to book their jabs.

NHS England is urging people to get both jabs to avoid a potential “twindemic” of flu and Covid, which would put pressure on the health service.

Talking about it, NHS director of vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “The NHS flu and Covid vaccination programmes have been very effective in protecting those at greatest risk and we will work at speed to ensure they are protected once again this year, starting with care homes and those who are housebound today.

“With concerns arising over new Covid variants, it’s vital we adapt the programme and bring it forward for those most at risk, and so I strongly urge everyone eligible to come forward as soon as they can for this important protection in colder months.

“NHS staff have worked hard to ensure services are ready for patients to get jabbed at an earlier stage so they can get their protection as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Moderna, one of the pharmaceutical companies producing Covid-19 vaccines, said its updated jabs provided a strong immune response against BA.2.86.

“Our updated Covid-19 vaccine will continue to be an important tool for protection as we head into the fall vaccination season,” said Stephen Hoge, the president of Moderna. “Moderna will continue to rapidly assess global public health threats and is committed to leveraging our mRNA platform against Covid-19.”

The Pirola Covid variant has been detected in eight countries so far, including the UK.

What is new Covid variant Pirola?

The new variant was first detected in Denmark on July 24. Researchers have made certain discoveries. For instance, they found that Pirola seems to have descended from the Omicron BA.2 sublineage that was responsible for a surge in Covid-19 cases in 2022. According to Yale Medicine, it has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein compared with Omicron variants.

Talking about it to SBS News, the infectious disease physician and clinical microbiologist Paul Griffin explained: “There are more than 30 amino-acid changes to the spike protein, which is similar to what we saw with the emergence of Omicron.

“At least at that very early stage, looking at how it’s composed, that does give us some cause for concern, and certainly is one that we have to watch really carefully.”

What are the symptoms of Pirola?

As the case numbers that are infected with Pirola are low, it is unclear whether the new variant comes with distinctive symptoms. The variants seen to date have caused coughing, sore throats, runny noses, fatigue, aches and altered senses of smell and taste.

Experts also aren’t sure if Pirola is more infectious than the other variants but some scientists said that, given how many new mutations it shows, it is likely not to match the current immunity people have built up to Covid-19 through vaccinations and recovering from the illness.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said: “More data is needed to understand this Covid-19 variant and the extent of its spread. But the number of mutations warrants attention. WHO will update countries and the public as we learn more.”

Why is it nicknamed Pirola?

As for its nickname, Pirola, WHO assigns Greek letters to variants of concern.

The name appears to have been suggested by @JPWeiland, a self-described scientist and infectious disease modeller, on the social media platform X (Twitter). He made a compound word from Pi and Rho, which follow Omicron in the Greek alphabet.

He explained that, as well as the next logical name after Omicron, he named it Pirola “after an asteroid that hangs out by Jupiter”.

However, as one person pointed out on social media, the word is also slang for the male anatomy in Spanish Galician, which may “ensure people in Spanish-speaking countries will not take it very seriously”, according to one tweet.

What should I do if I think I have Covid?

The NHS recommends those who test positive for Covid remain at home and avoid contact with others for five days. If those infected are sharing their home, they are advised to keep their windows open and use a mask in communal areas.

People whose Covid symptoms become severe or who are experiencing chest pain, coughing up blood or becoming breathless should head to A&E or call 999.

When is the latest Covid jab rollout?

Eligible Brits were invited to get their Covid-19 and flu booster earlier than initially planned after the Government confirmed this year’s Covid-19 vaccine and flu jab programme was set to launch earlier for 2023 as a result of the new strain.

Vaccinations began on September 11, instead of October. The hope is that the early rollout can provide greater protection to people at risk.

Millions of eligible people are being invited to get the jabs in the next few weeks. The Government aims to vaccinate as many eligible people as it can across the UK before the end of October.

Dame Jenny Harries, UKHSA’s chief executive, said: “As we continue to live with Covid-19, we expect to see new variants emerge. Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population. However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19.”

Where has Pirola been detected?

There are eight countries where the new variant has been detected. These are Denmark, Sweden, the US, Portugal, South Africa, Canada, Israel, and the UK.

Professor Lawrence Young of the University of Warwick told the Independent that there was “a general misplaced view that there is no longer a need to be worried about Covid”.

He said: “One way of controlling infection is to have at least some idea of where you’re seeing particular outbreaks and might be able to introduce precautionary measures to prevent the virus spreading further — but you have to know where it is.

“This new [variant] is popping up all over the place at the moment but we’re not monitoring it in the population.”