Health expert Michael Baker warns new COVID-19 variant BA.2.86 could already be in New Zealand

Health experts are warning the new COVID-19 variant might already be in New Zealand but say it's a variant of interest and not of concern yet. 

That's despite health officials in the UK describing BA.2.86 as the most worrying variant since Omicron. 

"It's quite possible this new lineage is already in New Zealand and we haven't picked it up yet," University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker said. 

The subvariant, dubbed 'Pirola' online, has been circulating overseas since late July.  

"This new variant has caused a great deal of concern globally and it's because it's so mutated," Prof Baker said. 

"In fact, the jump is as big as the jump from Delta to Omicron, so I think it's a reminder the pandemic is not over." 

But people in New Zealand are "pretty unconcerned", according to one woman. 

"It seems like we've been there and done that, and it's run its course," added one man. 

Prof Baker said although highly mutated, Pirola's not demonstrating significantly different abilities just yet. 

"If it did become really dominant in the way Omicron did then it would become a variant of concern, and that would be a worry because that would mean for instance the vaccine would need to be updated." 

In the UK, health authorities are ramping up their vaccination efforts. Britain's COVID-19 cases rose 15 percent last week alone. 

Back in New Zealand, doctors are urging people to do the same - including emergency medicine specialist Gary Payinda 

"Patients that I would not have commonly seen getting ill we're now seeing... sometimes end up in ICU or with a really negative outcome," Payinda said. 

He said the world is still years away from understanding the long-term effects of COVID-19 but, anecdotally, doctors are seeing more severe illnesses across the board. 

"There's also increases in strokes and deep vein thrombosis (DVT), blood clots and cardiac events." 

Doctors have said patients are catching long-COVID on their third or fourth infection and these patients said they had no idea that could happen.