How serious is the Pirola strain?

By Tom McGhie | Published: 27-Sep-2023

Following the recent news of gradually increasing cases of the new COVID-19 variant Pirola, we sat down with Moderna's VP of Medical Affairs Cesar Sanz Rodriguez to discuss just what people can expect in the coming months

COVID-19. The pandemic. Remember those words? That weird Roland Emmerich movie we all seemed to be unwillingly participating in on a daily basis between March 2020 and late 2022 seemed so very real at the time, but now for most, has drifted into comfortable rearview mirror status. 

How serious is the Pirola strain?

However, when a new virus strain named Pirola, or BA.2.86, appeared earlier this summer in the UK, it caused concern among some experts due to its vaccine-dodging capabilities. 

In the last week, the European Commission (EC) has announced it is drawing up plans for a tender for mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, with several countries such as Norway and the Netherlands confirming interest to start talks. 

In order to understand more about this potential oncoming crisis, Tom McGhie (TM) of Manufacturing Chemist sat down with Cesar Sanz Rodriguez (CSR), VP, Medical Affairs at Europe, Middle East & Canada at Moderna (pictured right). The pharma giant was crucial in the vaccine roll out and was flexible when it came to evolving its product to effectively counteract the late-breaking Omicron variant in 2021 and was top of the list to provide counsel on the Pirola strain. 

It may pose a higher risk of evading existing immunity in individuals who had COVID-19 before or those who have been vaccinated

- Cesar Sanz Rodriguez, Moderna 

TM: How does the Pirola strain compare to previous COVID-19 strains?

CSR: The Pirola strain, also known as BA.2.86, is one of the latest variants stemming from Omicron and is classed as a variant under monitoring by the World Health Organisation. 

The strain first emerged during the summer and has raised concerns due to its significant number of mutations in the viral genome, with over 30 additional mutations compared to other circulating COVID-19 variants. Consequently, it may pose a higher risk of evading existing immunity in individuals who had COVID-19 before or those who have been vaccinated. 

TM: Do the symptoms vary at all? 

CSR: While it is still being evaluated, it can cause various symptoms, such as a runny nose, headache, sneezing, sore throat, diarrhea, eye irritation, and rashes. 

TM: Is there a need for people to get another COVID-19 vaccine this year?

CSR: Pirola’s 30 additional mutations underscores the importance of receiving an updated COVID-19 vaccine this year, especially as we head into the winter when we typically see a surge in respiratory illnesses. In our recent announcement, we shared that our updated COVID-19 vaccine has demonstrated an 8.7-fold increase in neutralising antibodies, translating to a robust immune response against this strain. 

Moreover, previous data has shown a similar effective response against other circulating variants such as EG.5 (Eris) and FL.1.5.1 (Fornax). Hence, our vaccine will be an essential tool to protect public health this season.

Our vaccine will be an essential tool to protect public health this season

- Cesar Sanz Rodriguez, Moderna 

TM: Is it serious? What would an expert be advising governments at this stage?

CSR: Public health authorities are actively and diligently monitoring dominating and emerging variants, such as EG.5.1 and BA.2.86, recognising the importance of vaccinations in preventing severe disease and hospitalisations caused by circulating strains. In response, several governments have accelerated their vaccination campaigns. 

We are working with governments worldwide to include our updated COVID-19 vaccine in national vaccination programs to ensure a diversified portfolio that provides vaccine choice.

TM: As a serious player in the previous pandemic, how is Moderna looking at this forthcoming Pirola strain?

CSR: We understand the critical importance of staying ahead of emerging strains, which is why we actively monitor their emergence and engage in ongoing research and development. This proactive approach allows us to constantly assess how these strains impact the effectiveness of our vaccine. 

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What sets Moderna apart is our ability to leverage our cutting-edge mRNA platform. This innovative platform empowers us to quickly and effectively adapt vaccines, reducing the risk of severe illness and hospitalisation. 

We take great pride in our ability to generate and share comprehensive human data that demonstrates the effectiveness of our COVID-19 vaccine against specific strains, such as EG.5.1 and BA.2.86, as well as others. Our unwavering commitment to combating global health challenges drives us forward, and we work tirelessly to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals worldwide.

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