What is the new Covid-19 variant 'Pirola' and has it reached MENA?

What is the new Covid-19 variant 'Pirola' and has it reached MENA?
With the new Covid-19 variant Pirola spreading to at least eight countries, The New Arab looks at whether the variant has yet reached the Middle East and North Africa.
4 min read
04 September, 2023
Pirola is just one of many variants of Covid-19, but the sheer variety in its mutations means it could become dominant and evade immunity [Getty]

Though many treat the Covid-19 pandemic as a thing of the past, global health surveillance teams and scientists continue to keep a close eye on how the virus is changing. The newest sub-variant that is causing epidemiologists most concern is called BA.X, nicknamed Pirola by scientists.

What is the new Covid-19 variant and is it dangerous?

This heavily mutated sub-variant of Omicron has been described by epidemiologists as "the real deal", meaning it potentially has the capacity to spread rapidly and become the dominant variant. The main concern, though not yet backed up by scientific data, is that Pirola could evade immune responses, whether from vaccination or previous infection, and cause complications, mostly in vulnerable people, that could see health services overwhelmed.

Pirola was first picked up by World Health Organisation (WHO) surveillance teams last month. Despite its potential, the sub-variant has not yet been classified as a "variant of concern" like Omicron was in 2021, but rather as a "variant of interest", meaning it requires close monitoring.  

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Has Pirola reached the Middle East and North Africa?

In short, yes. Globally, less than 30 cases of Pirola have been recorded, but this is not as reassuring as it ought to be. This small number of cases has been found spread across at least eight different countries, namely the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, South Africa and Israel. This means that the sub-variant is transmitting in ways that global and local health bodies are not fully detecting.

So, while Israel is the only country in MENA region that has a confirmed Pirola case, its presence there indicates that it is almost certainly prevalent - without detection - in other countries in the region.

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What can be done about it, could there be more lockdowns? 

As well as normal precautions such as wearing face masks and washing you hands regularly, countries such as the UK and Israel have rolled out booster vaccinations for the most vulnerable to protect against any potential spikes in Covid-19 cases.

Keeping track of Pirola could be extremely difficult in MENA, especially among the region's large population of refugees and displaced peoples.

Experts say that if you have not yet had any or all of your Covid-19 vaccines, you should do so immediately to diminish the chances of catching, spreading and facing severe illness from Pirola and all variants of the virus.

The chances of governments implementing lockdowns again are quite slim. In a worst case scenario, based on what we currently know about Pirola so far, the approach to mitigating the virus would likely resemble that of Omicron.

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As opposed to lockdowns, this could mean the reintroduction of widespread testing, self-isolation and contact tracing for those infected or potentially exposed to infection.

It could also mean the introduction of booster shots and potentially bringing back mask regulations in public places. However, the former would be seen as hugely controversial in many countries due to the propensity of Covid-19 conspiracy theories, denialism, and disinformation.

In MENA, Turkey, despite having no confirmed Pirola cases, has issued a call for all people with Covid-like symptoms to get a PCR test, so the government can track potential Pirola cases. In contrast, in Kuwait the prominent MP Shuaib Al-Muwaizri reacted to the news of Pirola by calling for the WHO office in the country to be closed down, claiming it is part of a conspiracy to introduce more lockdowns and reduce the world's population to 1 billion people. 

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What are the symptoms of Pirola, and is it more dangerous than other variants of  Covid-19?

The symptoms of Pirola are very similar to other forms of Covid-19 and include runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and a sore throat. For most people, it would cause only mild illness.

However, the reason health experts believe it could have the potential to be more dangerous to vulnerable people, such as elderly people and those with diminished immune systems, due to the sheer amount of mutations. These mutations are what give it the capabilities to evade vaccinations and immunity.

There is not yet evidence of Pirola driving a recent jump in Covid infections, hospitalisations and deaths in places like the UK and US, but scientists have warned that the data could change on this.