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Covid Pirola variant 'one to watch' as expert reveals whether restrictions will return

New Covid variant BA.2.86, colloquially named Pirola, is sweeping across the US and ringing alarm bells for experts, with some warning of a return to restrictions. 

Some schools, businesses, and hospitals have been urging people to wear masks as the new variant is thought to be causing a rise in hospitalizations and deaths among the American population. 

Not only has there been a rise in hospitalizations and the number of deaths recorded, but levels of the virus have also been identified in wastewater samples across the country. 

In June, the number of patients needing emergency treatment as a result of Covid was at an all-time low but the number has been steadily creeping up since, experts warn.

In the US, there was an eight percent increase in Covid-related deaths last week, with a total of 1,144,539 deaths from August 5, 2023 to September 23, 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The CDC statistics also show a total of 6,368,333 Covid-related hospitalizations in the US from August 25, 2023 to September 23, 2023. 

In the UK, a Zoe Health study estimated that there are currently 1.2 million people infected with coronavirus, roughly one in 57 people.

Dr. Hana Patel, an NHS GP and Medico-Legal Expert Witness, highlights the significance of recent research findings, telling the Mirror: “This research underscores the need for vigilance as it indicates that this variant is causing hospitalizations and has a new mutation that allows it to evade the immune system, leading to illness.”

Professor Stephen Griffin, a prominent virologist from Leeds University, acknowledges the challenges in assessing the severity of the Pirola variant due to limited testing and its recent emergence.

He said: “While it hasn’t caused major outbreaks yet, it could be the harbinger of future challenges. We know it can evade antibodies in the bloodstream, but we haven’t seen enough cases to gauge its true seriousness.

“It’s a time for caution and careful observation.”

When speaking about whether a return to restrictions is likely, Ms Patel said: “If you experience symptoms like a cough or cold, take care to prevent its spread.

“Use tissues for sneezing and dispose of them properly, practice frequent handwashing with soap and water, and exercise caution in enclosed spaces with others who may be unwell.”

Professor Griffin echoes this caution, particularly for individuals in high-risk settings.

He advises: “In poorly ventilated or crowded areas, wear a filtering mask, ensure proper ventilation, or open windows. And, of course, if you’re offered a vaccine, don’t hesitate to take it.”

Dr Patel said she doesn’t think that there will be a return to lockdown-style restrictions seen during the early days of the pandemic. 

She said: “We’re not thinking it’s going to be that bad, because that’s not the advice that we’ve been given but things can change.

“I’d like to think that we wouldn’t need that if we put in place sensible mitigations, rather than restrictions.

“This false binary between abject freedom and restrictions, I don’t think we should think about it like that. We should make environments safe, we should improve ventilation, filter air and make sure people are vaccinated across the board, all those sorts of things that lessen the risks for everybody, including vulnerable people.” 

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