Health officials in New York City have announced the detection of a new COVID-19 variant, named the “Pirola,” sparking concerns about its potential impact on public health measures and vaccination efforts. The variant is believed to have originated locally and is currently undergoing extensive genomic analysis to better understand its characteristics and potential implications.
The Pirola variant, named after the neighborhood where it was first identified, comes at a critical juncture as the city continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary data suggests that the variant may have mutations in the spike protein, which could potentially affect its transmissibility, severity, and vaccine effectiveness.
“Based on the degree of mutations – while vaccinated people continue to be protected against serious illness – this variant may be more likely to evade immunity that has developed from vaccination or prior infection than earlier variants. But there is currently no indication that it causes more severe illness. We continue to monitor this carefully, alongside our colleagues at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization,” said Dr Ashwin Vasan, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner in a statement on August 29.
Dr. Emily Hernandez, a leading epidemiologist at NYC Health, emphasized the need for caution while awaiting further information. “We are closely monitoring the Pirola variant and conducting thorough investigations to determine its specific attributes,” Dr. Hernandez stated. “It’s important for the public to remain vigilant, adhere to recommended safety measures, and, most importantly, get vaccinated if they haven’t already.”
Health Commissioner Vasan said as cases rise, precautions become increasingly important, especially for most vulnerable New Yorkers who are older, disabled, or have underlying health conditions. Staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, along with other proven prevention tools – like masking, testing, and staying home when sick – continue to be our best defense against COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. Antibodies from vaccination and prior infection will continue to provide some protection, as will available antiviral treatments like Paxlovid, which is still effective against all circulating strains of COVID-19, he added.
Health authorities have urged residents to continue practicing preventive measures such as mask-wearing, hand hygiene, and maintaining social distance, particularly in indoor and crowded settings. Vaccination efforts have also been ramped up, with city officials urging eligible individuals to receive booster shots when available, in an effort to enhance immunity against evolving variants.
City Council member Mayor Samantha Rodriguez at a press conference, acknowledging the concerns surrounding the new variant. “While we understand that news of a new variant can be unsettling, we want to assure the public that our healthcare system is prepared to handle any challenges that may arise. We have a strong foundation of science, medical expertise, and community resilience to guide us through this situation.”
Global health organizations and research institutions have been alerted about the Pirola variant, as collaborative efforts are essential to understanding its behavior and implications on a broader scale. Epidemiologists and virologists around the world are closely monitoring the situation to determine the variant’s potential impact on global public health strategies.
“Like all viruses, Covid-19 adapts, and we continue to adapt to keep New Yorkers safe too. One recent change to COVID-19 is the BA.2.86 variant, which has been seen in other parts of the U.S. and was recently detected in New York City’s sewage. While we have yet to find it in a specimen from a local resident, it is almost certainly circulating here,” Commissioner Vasan added.
He added: “As we enter the traditional respiratory virus season, an updated COVID-19 vaccine is expected to become available in the coming weeks. Studies are still evaluating the new booster for its effectiveness against the BA.2.86 variant, but indicators suggest it will be effective at preventing severe illness and death.”
He added that it’s especially important that New Yorkers that are most vulnerable get the new booster when it’s available.” New Yorkers should talk to their health care or vaccination providers about the updated COVID-19 vaccine and this year’s flu vaccine. It is also a perfect time to get this year’s flu vaccine when available,” he added. For assistance with finding a health care provider, call 311 or visit vaccinefinder.nyc.gov to find a location near you and make an appointment.