The New COVID Variant: Not Deadlier, Just Different

Take a deep breath.... or a few...

In the ongoing “battle” against the COVID-19 pandemic, new variants of the virus continue to emerge, causing concern and raising questions about their potential impact on public health. Recently, a new variant has garnered attention, but there's encouraging news: it does not seem to be making people any sicker than previous variants.

Understanding Variants

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, are prone to mutations as they replicate in the human body. These mutations can lead to the emergence of new variants. It's important to note that not all variants are cause for alarm. In fact, most variants do not significantly alter the virus's behavior or impact on humans.

The New Variant: Delta Plus

One of the most recent variants of concern is often referred to as "PIrola" or “BA.2.86”. It’s a highly mutating variant of Omicron - it has more than 30 mutations. Concerns initially arose due to the numbers of mutation, However, early data and research have not indicated that “Pirola” or “BA.2.86” is causing more severe illness than other variants that came before it. Whether attributable to prior vaccination or simply prior exposure or infection, it remains evident that our immunity it still working to prevent severe illness in most.

Several studies and real-world observations suggest that people infected with the Pirola variant are experiencing symptoms similar in severity to those caused by earlier variants of the virus. Common symptoms include fever, cough, loss of taste or smell, fatigue, and respiratory issues. Hospitalization rates and mortality rates do not appear to be significantly higher for BA.2.86 compared to previous variants.

My Clinical Take

I am a family practice physician, licensed in 5 states. I’ve worked through the entire pandemic, both in person at urgent care centers and also seeing telemedicine patients from these 5 states. While this new variant is causing more cases and more illness, many experience flu like illness, at most. Some simply have mild sinus symptoms. I have not sent a single person to the hospital due to COVID-19 in a very, very long time. While it is true for most viruses that shedding is higher during times when a person shows symptoms, most viruses are also contagious before symptoms occur. The CDC is still recommending 5 days quarantine from symptom onset or day of positive test.

My advice I think is pretty reasonable, though our American work culture can often interfere… if you’re having sick symptoms, stay home. Listen to your body…If you’re very ill with fever, aches, and fatigue, you probably need to sleep and stay in bed. If you have more mild symptoms, working from home whenever possible may be the best solution. I understand the majority of us are in counterculture work environments, meaning accommodations are often not made for sick days, so I have no problem providing work notes to my patients for this. And if you haven’t yet, please read my other articles on preventive health techniques that involve yoga, mindfulness, and eating from the earth nutrition.

Drugs for Covid - I might get massacred by the medical & pharmaceutical communities for this one….

So you’re sick with COVID and feeling pretty crappy… naturally you want a treatment to take it away and make it better faster so you can resume your life. While there are a handful of medications being used for hospitalized patients, Paxlovid, currently, is the only oral medication that’s been FDA approved for non-hospitalized patients.

Personally, I am not a fan of this drug for otherwise healthy individuals. (I must disclose that I also don’t give my kids Tamiflu when they test positive for the flu.). There have been many frustrating things about our healthcare system, and one of them has to do with the reporting process of side effects from drugs. When we were pushing Paxlovid for COVID, I saw a great number of cases of pretty apparent “rebound COVID” after finishing Paxlovid. This means that upon finishing the 5 day course of treatment, people had symptoms recur, often times more severely. Numerous times I attempted to report these cases. The only way to do so is to call Pfizer, the maker of Paxlovid, and be put on a prompt system and then on hold for a long wait - on average this was taking me 20-30 minutes to get to a person to whom I could give report. No healthcare practitioner has time for this - especially not at a busy urgent care. And my opinion, this failed system has created a situation of gross underreporting of side effects from these COVID drugs.

Also, Paxlovid has very specific indications. This is straight from the FDA website: “On May 25, 2023, Paxlovid was approved for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in adults who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death.” So, as per the FDA, this medication is NOT indicated for anyone other than the high-risk patient.

Basic Reasoning…

The emergence of new COVID-19 variants understandably triggers concern, but it's important to remember that not all variants are created equal. The Pirola variant, while carrying an additional mutation, does not appear to be making people any sicker than previous variants.

While it is crucial to stay informed and adhere to public health guidelines, there is no need for undue panic regarding this new variant. Let’s use our basic reasoning skills to navigate. If you’re sick with any respiratory virus and coughing, and you care about spreading the virus, maybe it’s best to stay away from others whenever possible and if needed wear a mask temporarily so that you’re not spewing your saliva everywhere. As a physician seeing sick patients and a mother of two school-aged children, I use an approach of radical acceptance. This means that I keep my body and mind as healthy as possible with activity and nutrition, and simply accept the fact that my children and I are existing in evolutionarily normal Petri dishes and we will occasionally get sick. If you have a child in daycare, sick might be more of the norm for a while. When I am sick, I don’t quarantine from my healthy 5-year old. This would be scary for her and she wouldn’t understand what was happening. My 12-year old, on the other hand, can better understand the concept and might choose to keep a bit more distance without being frightened about something serious. We wash our hands after using the bathroom, and often we eat backyard tomatoes after digging in the garden, without first washing them or our hands. Balance is life, life is balance.

In peace & love,

Dr. Dana