COVID surveillance is coming back and the vaccine rollout has been accelerated as new variants circulate. Do they pose a bigger threat than previous strands? Here’s what you need to know.
Sky News reporter @jos_franks
Tuesday 12 September 2023 16:12, UK
While the spike in COVID cases and the vaccination drive being brought forward are making headlines, health experts in the UK say they are “more concerned” about a new variant that has cropped up in a care home.
What does this mean for the UK as a whole – and should you be worried?
Here’s what you need to know.
Infections are up – but still relatively low
More than one million people in the UK currently have symptomatic COVID, according to estimates from the ZOE Health Study.
The ongoing study, run by King’s College London, uses data from app users to predict infection rates across the country.
It shows numbers have been building from a low in July. Around 1,169,195 people in the UK are estimated to have COVID – the biggest number since 17 April 2023, when approximately 1,178,340 were infected.
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Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to UKHSA, says the number of overall COVID cases in the UK is still lower than it has been “for many years” despite a spike in recent weeks.
COVID case numbers went up roughly 15% last week compared to the week prior.
“That’s still very small,” professor Hopkins told the Sky News Daily Podcast, which you can listen to below.
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“We’re talking about under 3,000 individuals being in hospital with COVID at any one time and, on average, into the low thousands of those people being diagnosed and confirmed positive with COVID on a test.
“But of course, that’s an under-ascertainment because very few tests are happening these days.”
Better data is coming
Plans are under way to restart COVID surveillance ahead of winter, the UKHSA has said.
The weekly ONS infection survey stopped in March after almost three years of providing weekly data on levels of the virus across the UK.
The UKHSA is yet to announce what surveillance over the winter will look like, but there will be no ramping up of routine testing.
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What are the latest variants circulating?
BA.2.86 is the most concerning variant since Omicron emerged, NHS officials have said, with a cluster of infections found in a care home in the UK.
Nicknamed Pirola, it was first detected in the UK in mid-August, when the UKHSA said it could already be causing “significant community transmission”.
The variant prompted the acceleration of the vaccine programme.
The reason scientists concerned are its high number of mutations: 34 to be exact. We’re yet to see what the mutations mean for the variant’s ability to make people sick.
“Having changed their shape, they may become more infectious, they may become more disease-causing,” Dr Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert from the University of Exeter, told Sky News.
“On the other hand, they may not. We just don’t know yet,” he said.
Other variants include EG.5, also known as EG.5.1 or Eris, which has been reported in 51 countries, and BA.6, unofficially dubbed Pi, which has been detected in Denmark and Israel.
Authorities ‘more concerned’ about BA.2.86 than number of infections
Professor Hopkins has said the UKHSA is “more concerned” about the new BA.2.86 variant than the increase in overall COVID cases.
“[BA.2.86] has a high amount of mutations compared to what was circulating in the past.
“We’re highlighting 34 cases in England that have been identified – 28 cases are from a single cluster in a care home, and that’s showing that we are seeing some high attack rates in individuals with vulnerabilities.”
While it is not yet known whether BA.2.86 is more infectious or more severe than the most common COVID strains, professor Hopkins has said it is likely to evade immunity more effectively than other variants.
The good news, she added, is that the vast majority of these infections are still likely to be mild – and there is no evidence so far to suggest this variant is more severe than previous ones.
Can lateral flow or PCR tests detect the new BA.2.86 variant?
Yes. All cases of the variant have been discovered through the regular tests that you can pick up at a local pharmacy.
What’s happening with COVID vaccines?
The rollout of vaccines was brought forward due to concerns about a new variant, and from 11 September high-risk groups will start getting a seasonal booster.
But there’s strict criteria for who is eligible. Over-65s, frontline health workers, people with immunosuppression and those in clinical risk groups are among those who can get the jab.
Are rules seen in lockdown likely to be reintroduced?
When asked if some form of guidance should be introduced to care homes to protect residents from the BA.2.86 variant, Professor Hopkins said: “There are pros and cons to doing that.
“People in care homes have had multiple doses of the vaccine, so they are much better protected than they were in 2020.
“I think the vaccine is a mainstay of enabling people to live their lives to the fullest.”
As for the wider population, Professor Hopkins said there would need to be “extreme challenges” occurring to the health system before mask wearing was asked of the public – and that even then, it is unlikely to be made mandatory again.
What should I do if I have COVID?
There are no longer any COVID restrictions in the UK.
However, the government still says you should try to stay at home if you have COVID.
Free tests are no longer available to most people but can be bought at pharmacies.