An “alarming” new, highly mutated COVID-19 variant has been detected in Utah wastewater.
The new variant, labeled BA.2.86 by scientists and dubbed Pirola, turned up in a wastewater sample collected Sept. 7, said Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.
Oakeson said the sample came from the sewage treatment plant in Tooele and the results were confirmed this week. He said the new variant has not yet been seen in samples from individual positive COVID-19 tests.
Ten other states have reported finding the new variant: Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington, according to information compiled by a global virus database, GISAID.
Two of those states, New York and Ohio, identified Pirola in wastewater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oakeson said wastewater surveillance “acts as an early warning system” for COVID-19.
As of last Thursday, the state’s weekly coronavirus update showed COVID-19 levels were increasing at 10 of the 34 sewage treatment plants around Utah where samples are collected for testing, with virus reaching elevated levels at 11 sites.
Pirola has also been seen in Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and South Africa, where it was responsible for more than a third of that nation’s COVID-19 cases last month, GISAID data shows.
After the variant surfaced this summer, Oakeson said Pirola’s more than 30 mutations were “alarming,” comparing the changes to what was seen in the omicron variant that sent cases soaring in Utah to record levels in early 2022.
That sounded a “warning bell,” he said. “When we saw that level of mutation again, we were like, ‘Uh, oh. This isn’t a good thing. Let’s be really careful. Let’s keep an eye on this and see what happens.’ That’s where we currently are.”
Oakeson said the many mutations are still alarming, even though Pirola may not be another omicron.
“It definitely doesn’t look like what happened with the original omicron variant,” he said. “It’s nowhere near as severe. Will it cause a surge in cases beyond what we’re currently seeing? I think it’s too early to tell that yet. But it doesn’t seem to be giving us the same scare.”
An initial assessment by the CDC in late August warned Pirola “may be more capable of causing infection in people who have previously had COVID-19 or who have received COVID-19 vaccines.”
However, a CDC update earlier this month on the variant said new data “are reassuring and show that existing antibodies work against” it and are “also encouraging because of what it may mean for the effectiveness of the 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine.”
A new booster dose of that vaccine, updated to target other versions of the virus that, like Pirola, are descendants of omicron, was given final approval by the federal government last week for everyone 6 months and older.
The CDC also pointed out the new variant is not driving the current increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide. Last Friday, University of Utah Health officials cited a “dramatic” climb in the virus and advised eligible Utahns to get the new booster shots.
Others are also no longer as concerned about Pirola.
“It really got our attention as virologists” because the high number of mutations “suggested that it might cause a lot more trouble,” Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the U. Health Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, told reporters last week.
Now, Pavia said, it looks like it might not be so bad.
“It’s not spreading as fast as other emergent variants have and it’s pretty well neutralized” in people who’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or infected in the past few months, the doctor said.
“So far, it’s not living up to its potential. Like a disappointing child, I suppose, if you’re the parent, omicron,” Pavia said. “This one, we’re watching it, but currently it does not appear to be a large threat.”