covid antigen test
The guidance for what to do if you think you have the new variant remains the same: stay home and manage the symptoms with paracetamol
A new, multiply-mutated form of Covid has popped up, spawning some alarming, clickbait headlines. But I'm not overly concerned, and I'll certainly be off to wish my 102-year-old grandmother "happy birthday" shortly. Here's why.

Dubbed BA2.86, the new Omicron spin-off comes hot on the heels of the EG5.1 "Eris" variant - named after the Greek goddess of strife - which first elbowed itself onto the Covid scene in July. Eris is accounting for about 15 per cent of the Covid-19 cases we're seeing at the moment. Some have suggested that, combined with summer travel, bad weather keeping people indoors, and waning population immunity, Eris might be behind the recent uptick in cases.

BA2.86, on the other hand, has been detected in only a few countries so far, including Israel, the US and Denmark. Last week, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed one case in this country. This new variant doesn't earn itself a Greek letter for a name, but instead scientists have nicknamed it "Pirola", a moniker allegedly adopted from social media after an asteroid that loiters between Mars and Jupiter.

Cause for optimism

Reassuringly, the recorded cases of the new variant have not been more clinically extreme than other circulating forms of the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling BA2.86 a VUM - variant under monitoring - because there's no evidence that it's linked to any increase in disease severity or enhanced spread. It's this that would earn Pirola the title of a VOC - variant of concern - at this stage.

Like Eris, Pirola should also be detectable with a lateral flow test. The guidance for what to do if you think you have it remains the same as for other forms of Covid-19: stay home, manage the symptoms - which include cough, running nose, headache and a temperature - with simple remedies like paracetamol.

Dr Chris Smith
‘I’m not overly concerned,’ says Smith Credit: John Lawrence
Whether Pirola will end up in our orbit and be linked to an outbreak, or is destined to remain consigned to the wilderness in virological space, is impossible to say at this stage with only six cases so far to go on.

Nevertheless, we can make some predictions about its likely behaviour based on reading its genome. Plus, based on the geography of the detections so far, we can infer that it's probably been circulating at low level for a while, which is also in some ways reassuring. The UKHSA's statement that the UK case had no known travel history - suggesting they had picked it up in the community - supports this.

The genetic code of the variant is what has sparked the interest of the research community. This shows that Pirola is without doubt another chip off the Omicron block, but it's shot through with genetic changes - more than 30 - which are clustered in those parts of the virus that affect how it appears to our immune systems, and how it gets into our cells.

This could have the effect of endowing the virus with the ability to side-step our existing immunity to a greater or lesser extent, making infection, and hence transmissions and outbreaks, more likely.

Fizzling out

That said, some of the changes identified are known to undermine the performance of the virus, limiting its growth and spread. So it's not a given, just because it carries a large cargo of mutations, that it is destined to cause trouble. It may well, as some commentators are predicting, "just fizzle out".

This presentation has all the hallmarks of a virus bred in an immunocompromised person, probably in a resource-poor part of the world with limited diagnostic surveillance. Scientists suspect that Omicron, and the Kent variant (Alpha) before that, emerged this way earlier in the pandemic.

So why am I unconcerned at this stage? The reassuring features are that very few cases have been detected so far despite what must amount to a reasonable degree of international spread. Also, three years on from the origin of the pandemic, the majority of the world population now has existing immunity to Covid-19 owing to vaccination, infection, or both. And while this may not entirely prevent infection, it provides a sufficient immunological foundation to mean that most people, if they encounter the virus, are no longer destined to develop severe disease.

'For most of us it's just something we've got to live with'

By Serena Davies

I spent my summer holiday with Covid. This was not the plan. It began with a cough. Yes, I know - it has always begun with a cough. But I didn't realise it was Covid. I was in a tent at a festival, pretending I was still 21, and at 3am my throat suddenly tickled. Various explanations occurred to me at this point, and Covid wasn't one of them. I stayed another couple of days, dancing in the midst of vast crowds. It was excellent fun.

The subsequent week back in London was spent doing intergenerational socialising and shopping. I even went to the opera, where the average age of an audience member is 102. I felt perfectly well, if a little tired, but I'm often tired. I coughed about three times a day.

Then I went to Suffolk and lay on a beach. I couldn't be persuaded even to dip my toe in the water because of what felt like the intolerable cold of the East Anglian coast in August. But this again was pretty normal behaviour for me.

Serena Davies
Serena Davies: ‘I feel if I’d written this account two years ago I would have had the police knocking on my door’ Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley
Then I took to my bed with a swirling brain and a more irritating cough and decided I must be getting some sort of cold. A sore throat began. I'd get up for a few hours, beat my 12-year-old daughter Constance at cards (my partner claims this was a "fever dream"), eat heartily and then have to go back to bed again. So much for running every day and getting triathlon-fit in order to meet the formidable demands of my job when I went back to work.

By the time I returned home the other side of the weekend I had a constant, strangely synthetic pulsing feeling. I thought, this is man-made! This must be some rogue virus escaped from a Chinese lab!

I walked to the chemist and bought some tests. If the man behind the counter was worried I was carrying some deadly disease into his shop, he wasn't telling.

Two bright pink lines later, and with a heavy heart, I got in touch with the mothers of two girls I'd lined up to provide company for Constance. Constance had tested negative so I thought she could resign from the nursing role she was embracing with only partial enthusiasm - although she had made me boiled eggs for breakfast - and go hang out with them instead.

Both parents seemed to give my suggestion considerable deliberation but then produced pending visits to elderly relatives and declined, "just to be on the safe side". I got the impression they, too, would have attempted to palm off their healthy child had they been in my shoes - and had sympathy for my predicament. One was a doctor.

I decided to make the best of a bad hand and take the opportunity to master the oeuvre of Christopher Nolan. Constance was delighted at the decision to go box-eyed as some sort of educational directive. We watched The Prestige, Inception, Dunkirk, Batman Begins and even the start of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman (to compare and contrast with Nolan's DC phase, of course) in the space of 48 hours. In between each film I moved from the sofa to the bed and had some more fever dreams about winning at cards. I downed paracetamol.

Everyone kept asking me if I was feeling dreadful but I wasn't really. I was just incapacitated and bored. From first cough to feeling tolerable, it went on for over two weeks. In the end, the tests lost interest in my illness and I in them.

I feel if I'd written this account two years ago I would have had the police knocking on my door. But the rules have changed now. There don't seem to be any. A colleague told me today that a parent at the school gates with his face inches away from his own had apologised for coughing with: "Sorry, I've just got Covid."

I didn't behave that badly. I'm sure the other mothers were perfectly correct to keep my daughter away from theirs. I know Covid can still be a dreadful and fatal thing. But for most of us it's just something we've got to live with.

This was the second time I'd had Covid and I was about the same level of ill on both occasions. The first time was after a recent vaccination and this time wasn't. Constance has remained immune throughout both bouts. I suspect my chaotic version of muddling through in Covid's company is drawing ever closer to the common experience.