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The 'Pirola' Variant of SARS-CoV-2
No Need to Panic
It has been 768 days since my university’s administration banned me from accessing my office and laboratory.
- B. Bridle -
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A friend asked for my opinion about a story that was just published. Rather than provide only him with an answer, I figured that others might benefit from the insights of a viral immunologist who specializes in vaccinology, and that has been on the front lines of COVID-19 science since the beginning. Here is my take…
The story was given the title “This Fall's Covid Variant Might Really Be Different“.
It could just as easily have been entitled “This Fall's Covid Variant Might Not Be Different in Any Meaningful Way“.
“BA.2.86—dubbed “pirola” […] has been detected in only about a dozen people but it has surfaced in all corners of the world.“
BA.2.86, also known as ‘pirola’ (named after an asteroid near the planet Venus), is the newest variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of the disease we call ‘COVID-19’). This new variant is ‘under monitoring’.
This quote from the paper suggests that the virus is not highly transmissible and/or it is not particularly dangerous. A highly transmissible virus that is in 12 people sprinkled around the world would be capable of spreading rapidly. I suspect that it has likely spread much more than what is currently appreciated, but it is not causing substantial disease, so nobody really cares enough to get tested. A dangerous virus would be easily detected and would prompt testing because it would be causing severe disease and death, which could not be missed. This sentence alone alleviates concerns about this variant of SARS-CoV-2.
“What’s troubling about this variant, scientists say, is that it contains more than 30 mutations on the spike protein, which is what helps the virus enter cells and cause an infection. This means it might be able to evade current vaccines and previous infections more easily, and it likely won’t be a great match with the fall booster expected to be approved soon.“
An accumulation of mutations in the spike protein are exactly what we would expect. After all, the COVID-19 shots only target the spike protein. It is one of the poor design features of these shots. The COVID-19 shots do not come anywhere close to conferring immunity against infection with nor transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Applying a non-lethal selective pressure against a single protein from a virus is the perfect recipe for promoting the emergence of naturally occurring variants that have changed the target protein enough to facilitate long-term survival of the virus.
Of course new variants will be better able to escape historical immunity. However, the reporter failed to disseminate important information here. Naturally acquired immunity is superior to the sub-par immune responses induced by outdated COVID-19 shots. Importantly, naturally acquired immune responses target multiple components of SARS-CoV-2, not just the spike protein. A person with naturally acquired immunity will have both antibodies and T cells that can kill SARS-CoV-2 by virtue of recognizing things other than the spike protein. So, it will be more difficult for new variants to completely evade naturally acquired immunity. It would be expected that those who only have had immune responses induced by the COVID-19 shots will be more susceptible to getting infected and will be prone to more severe illness than people with naturally acquired immunity.
Also, this cycle of ever-emerging new variants of a virus is not new. It occurs with every cold-causing virus. People get infected, mount an effective immune response and then are protected until the virus has changed enough to cause mild disease again. This has been happening our entire lives. With pathogens that are not particularly serious, they key is to not allow your immunity to get outdated by isolating yourself from the microbial world. This is likely a key reason why many people, especially children, got so sick with so many pathogens once they were released from their long-term COVID-19 lockdown prisons.
Another point missed in the article is that too many mutations in the protein that is needed for a virus to infect cells can lead to reduced infectivity, making it less transmissible and less dangerous.
I can almost guarantee that the new COVID-19 shots that will be released in the Fall will fail at least as badly as their predecessors. They keep targeting versions of the spike protein that are largely extinct. Also, the technology has not come close to fulfilling the definition of an ideal vaccine. The rollout of COVID-19 shots that are outdated and based on a fundamentally flawed technology are almost certainly a key reason why SARS-CoV-2 is mutating far faster than the average coronavirus. This vicious cycle needs to stop before the people pushing these shots are successful at forcing mutations that result in a genuinely dangerous version of SARS-CoV-2.
“It’s drastically different”
“It’s unclear whether the variant will result in different or more severe symptoms.“
Being different doesn’t equate with being a substantial problem. Any new variant of any virus has the theoretical potential to cause more severe symptoms, if it even causes disease in the first place. Nobody needs to be concerned about a theoretical issue when the preliminary data already suggest the virus is not particularly dangerous. The people who would likely be at risk of more severe symptoms would be those whose immune responses were induced by COVID-19 shots only, since the can only target the protein that has mutated in this variant. The rest of the virus will not have changed much, meaning that broad-based naturally acquired immunity will keep many people disease-free and blunt the severity of any disease that might develop. The good news is that almost every person on earth will likely have some form of naturally acquired immunity against SARS-CoV-2 by now (although data suggest this is likely sub-par for those who got COVID-19 shots before being infected).
“Positive cases of BA.2.86 have been reported in the U.S., Denmark, Israel, South Africa, Portugal and the U.K.“
“It’s also been detected in wastewater in the U.S.“
All references to ‘cases’ in this story are based on testing. Note that they do not even refer to these as cases of COVID-19; just “cases of BA.2.86”. Some people who get infected with SARS-CoV-2 go on to develop the disease that we call COVID-19, many do not. If these were severe cases involving hospitalization and death, this would have been reported. The fact that the fear mongering that we have come to expect from mainstream media could not be easily infused into this text suggests that infections to date have likely led to only mild disease, if any disease at all. Wastewater testing certainly cannot identify cases of disease.
“Jetelina says she hypothesizes that if the variant spreads widely, it would be able to escape the neutralizing antibodies we have from vaccines and previous infections, making it easier to get infected, but might not be as successful with our immune system’s second line of defense, the T-cells, which protect against severe disease.“
‘Jetelina’ is an epidemiologist who, with all due respect, lacks sufficient training in immunology, especially the sub-discipline of vaccinology, and virology to be accurately educating the public about this topic. This scientist has provided information that is misleading. A new variant that has dramatically changed its spike protein will not be able to achieve equal escape from antibodies induced by ‘vaccines’ versus previous infections. It will much more easily escape from those induced by the COVID-19 shots because they ONLY target the spike protein. Those with naturally acquired immunity have antibodies targeting other viral proteins that have not changed substantially. Further, T cells don’t only protect against severe disease. T cells are perfectly capable of outright protecting against disease through a form of immunity that we call ‘near-sterilizing immunity’; where infection can occur, but the virus is cleared rapidly enough by T cells to avoid the onset of disease. Finally, if this epidemiologist has dampened concern about the Pirola variant being able to escape from T cells induced by COVID-19 shots, then they should be much less concerned for those with naturally acquired immunity who have T cells against an array of proteins in SARS-CoV-2.
“Bloom says the evolutionary jump of BA.2.86 is similar to that of the original Omicron, which burst onto the scene in the winter of 2021 resulting in a spike in infections.“
‘Bloom’ is a virologist. The implication here is that the Pirola variant might result in a substantial new wave of infections. I agree. But, what was left out is the fact that Omicron was not dangerous for most people; and Pirola is likely less dangerous, especially for those with naturally acquired immunity.
Omicron had the potential to be dangerous in the people who are typically at elevated risk for any infectious pathogen (like the frail elderly and the immunosuppressed), with the exception of very young children that have a unique biology that makes it difficult for SARS-CoV-2 to get into their bodies (other pathogens can be more dangerous in very young kids because they have underdeveloped immune systems). So far, it looks like Pirola might cause a typical wave of the common cold. It might spread to a lot of people like most cold-causing viruses do, and for most, it will cause mild, if any, disease. High risk individuals should take the precautions they normally would in any ‘cold and flu season’ (more aptly dubbed the ‘low vitamin D season’ by many immunologists); stay away from people who are sick and sick people stay at home, with a special emphasis on avoiding the people who are at elevated risk.
(As an additional health tip, get your blood tested for vitamin D concentrations and consider supplementing with vitamin D (and some vitamin K) if needed; research suggests that optimal immunological functioning requires vitamin D to be at or above 50 ng/mL.)
“But he and other scientists, including the CDC, note that the Covid-19 landscape is different now as almost everyone has some immunity to Covid-19 from either a previous infection and vaccines.”
Wow, it took three years, but more people are recognizing the truth that many of us were shouting from the rooftops; that naturally acquired immunity is a valid form of immunity. And, as we know from a ‘Mount Everest’-sized body of scientific literature, it offers better protection than what COVID-19 shots can confer. It is too bad this wasn’t recognized prior to forcing lots of people out of their jobs; and doing horrific things like denying transplants to people that had proof of robust naturally acquired immunity but lacked certification of a needle being placed into the shoulder, which, at best, could induce sub-optimal immune responses and in some cases, no response at all.
This statement in the news article wrongly implies that nobody had any relevant immunity when SARS-CoV-2 burst on the scene. This is a lie that many people have propagated. SARS-CoV-2 is called a coronavirus because of its similarity to other coronaviruses. It is more similar to other coronaviruses than it is different. Many people had pre-existing immunity against historical coronaviruses that cross-reacted to some degree with SARS-CoV-2. For many people, this is why they never experienced COVID-19 after getting infected with SARS-CoV-2, and why many others had substantially blunted disease. Never again should the value of naturally acquired immunity be dismissed.
“Scientists don’t know where the variant originated. Because it contains so many mutations, they speculate it developed over months in an immunocompromised person with a chronic infection.“
It is fascinating that they want to lay the blame on an immunocompromised person. The concept here is that an immunocompromised person cannot, obviously, respond effectively to any vaccine (or infection). As such, they can never mount more than a sub-optimal immune response; one that usually fails to stop the acquisition of a disease and transmission of the causative agent. What was left out here is that this is precisely what happens in almost every HEALTHY person that received a COVID-19 shot. There is zero evidence that the immunocompromised are to blame for this; it is pure speculation. The reality is that the massive number of healthy people that got COVID-19 shots that could not induce immunity represent a more than adequate population to incubate and spread novel variants of SARS-CoV-2. What this biology indicates is that those with naturally acquired immunity against SARS-CoV-2 are the least likely to promote the emergence of new variants. These are the safest people to be around.
““It’s probably been evolving for quite some time,” says T. Ryan Gregory, an evolutionary biologist and professor at University of Guelph in Ontario. Gregory says it isn’t clear whether it’s taking off as a variant the way Omicron did.
With surveillance efforts reduced, the new variant could be common in a locale without being noticed, says Gregory.“
‘Gregory’ is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in studying the genomes (genetic blueprints) of animals like insects, spiders, crustaceans, molluscs, echinoderms, and annelids. Why he was interviewed for a story focused on placing a novel virus variant into the broader context of vaccines and naturally acquired immunity is beyond me. He has been active in attacking real experts who have continually spoken proven truths far before he could understand them. The comment about a pathogen potentially being more common than what low surveillance efforts imply is obvious yet practically meaningless. I don’t understand why one would increase surveillance efforts for a variant that is so anemic that the only way to appreciate its presence is through the widespread use of poorly calibrated PCR tests that cannot differentiate infectious versus non-infectious viruses. If people aren’t getting sick from a new variant, then I can guarantee that our medical resources can be put to much better use against serious health problems that are always prevalent (like cancers, autoimmune diseases, the opioid crisis, mental health issues, COVID-19 shot-induced side effects, etc.). Increasing surveillance for a virus that is not showing signs of being dangerous could lead to something that we have seen way too much of; a bunch of data that can be misused by people for fear-mongering purposes.
Experts in the relevant disciplines who have integrity and are willing to discuss differences of opinions should be interviewed for these kinds of stories. An overly superficial understanding of immunology too often results in misinterpretations of data and/or failure to place data into a proper context. In turn, this has led to a lot of unnecessary and unjustified fear-mongering over the past couple of years. I’m not sure why there has been such a paucity of interviews with immunologists for these kinds of news stories related to immune responses against SARS-CoV-2.
“Even if BA.2.86 doesn’t spread widely, it’s an important reminder that vastly different strains can surface out of nowhere, says Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.“
New strains of viruses do not pop out of nowhere. More likely, they are derived from biological systems that are exerting non-lethal selective pressures on them. At the top of this list are those whose immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 were induced only via COVID-19 shots. If you want to slow the emergence of new variants, STOP THE SHOTS! Stop putting those of us who know better at risk of getting exposed to a genuinely very dangerous version of SARS-CoV-2. Similarly, stop manufacturing viruses like SARS-CoV-2 in labs; they have not gone through the same selective pressures that naturally occurring viruses have.
“Lessler says the fact that the locations where the variant has been identified haven’t experienced large surges in cases is a hopeful sign that the strain might not be proliferating rapidly.”
I agree. There are much more concerning medical issues to tackle.
““But that doesn’t mean it can’t mutate to be able to spread quickly at some point,” he notes.“
So many ‘experts’ want to keep their finger near the ‘fear trigger’. An equally valid way of stating this is, “But that doesn’t mean it can’t mutate to be even less capable of spreading at some point“. If we really want to reduce the chance of dangerous mutations occurring in SARS-CoV-2, STOP THE SHOTS!
In closing, my expert opinion matches that of Dr. David Dowdy…
“Some public health experts caution against reading too much into the new variant.
“We don’t want to be sounding alarm bells over a variant that is just as likely to die out as it is to become the next big thing,” says David Dowdy, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If we did that for every single variant we’d be sounding alarm bells every single day.”“
This kind of logic seems rare these days and is so very welcome. I couldn’t agree more.
If there are any ‘experts’ who are tempted to tell others that I am spreading misinformation here, I would ask that they follow the ‘misinformation science’ and engage me in a public discussion to demonstrate it first. Anything else is a sign of cowardice and an indication for dismissal of the opinion, as per the ‘misinformation science’ literature.
COVID Chronicles is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.