The UK has “gone down” on Covid and is “quite blind to what's going on”, a scientist has warned as concerns grow over the new BA.2.86 coronavirus variant.
The government unveiled its autumn Covid booster shot this week in response to the discovery of the new variant, which has a similar number of mutations to Omicron and Delta and has been identified in the UK and many other nations around the world.
While scientists welcomed the “precautionary” decision, the role the new BA.2.86 variant – codenamed “Pirola” – might play in the coming months is far from clear.
Although optimistic that the booster would offer some protection, some virologists admitted that “we don't know yet” whether it will provide sufficient protection in all cases, as its many mutations may mean it can avoid the jab.
But with only one case confirmed in England and another from Public Health Scotland on Thursday, the new strain is not currently classified as a ‘variant of concern'.
More worrying for scientists is the return of children to school and adults to the office after the summer holidays with “waning immunity” and, said Professor Lawrence Young, “a general misconception that there is no longer any reason to worry about Covid”. .
“Unfortunately, this is not the case. At the moment we are frustrated and quite blind to what is going on,” said Professor Young, of the University of Warwick.
While tracking of the virus by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was stopped in March – to the dismay of many epidemiologists – the Zoe Health study estimates that infections rose by almost 200,000 cases last month, rising to around 785,000 on 27 July. Covid-related hospital admissions are running at their highest rate in three months.
“One way to control infection is to at least have some idea of where you're seeing particular cases, and you may be able to introduce preventative measures to prevent the virus from spreading further – but you need to know where it is,” Professor Yang said.
“This news [variant] it's showing up everywhere right now, but we're not tracking it in the population.”
The virologist added: “Now the tests are not free and people have to buy lateral flow tests… if people have a cough and a cold, would they go back to work? They probably would, even if they tested positive.
“There's really an issue here – we've done away with all mandatory testing completely, we've done away with the ONS survey, so we're in quite an interesting situation. What this tells us is that Covid is not gone.
“And even though people are really bored with it, it's still out there, it's still changing – and it's still unpredictable. With the flu, as unpleasant as the flu is, it is seasonal and can be predictable – Covid is neither of those things. Not yet anyway, the hope is that it will be in the future.”
This month saw renewed calls for people to consider wearing face masks in high-risk environments – likely to have been met in many places with a significant degree of fatigue and scepticism.
But Prof Young believes the Government and the NHS should come up with recommendations for face masks in high-risk places such as hospitals and increased ventilation in places such as schools, adding: “I can see we're going to be in a situation in the winter season when we wear face masks.”
However, whether these factors will combine to lead to “a big wave is debatable”, Professor Young said, noting that the population's significant past exposure to vaccines and the virus – evident in the gradual decline in severe cases – works in favor us.
“My experience and the hospitals' experience of the current variation [is] the virus itself is not as bad as it used to be,” said Professor Denis Kinane, co-founder of Covid testing company Cignpost Diagnostics.
Professor Kinane said this could also translate into mutations.
Asked about the new variant, which the US Centers for Disease Control estimates has about 35 mutations compared to Omicron XBB.1.5 – the variant targeted by the new vaccines – he said: “The number of mutations does not correlate linearly with virulence power [how harmful a virus is]it can actually go the other way.”
“The virus is always mutating and doesn't really care if it's actually more or less virulent,” the immunologist added. “In many ways, it's actually better for the virus if it's less virulent, it means it causes less disease and death. This means that the virus can actually survive and [spread] more.”
However, Professor John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), noted that many of the mutations in the new variant – discovered in countries such as South Africa, the US and Israel – “can be expected to help the virus to avoid existing immune responses'.
As a precaution, “it therefore makes sense to advance the planned fall vaccination campaign to ensure that those at highest risk” are boosted in protection, he said, noting that “it is not yet clear whether it replaces existing strains in any countries that have received.
Speaking to Financial Times This week, Eric Topol, director of the San Diego-based Scripps Research Translational Institute, also warned that the boosters might not be much help against the new variant because of its significant number of mutations.
Professor Young said that while “we don't yet know” whether the vaccine booster to be released from 11 September will provide sufficient protection against the new variant of Covid, particularly for the most vulnerable, “the suspicion is that it will”. He added: “It should be OK, but we don't know.”
Professor Mark Jit, also of LSHTM, was equally optimistic.
“We know very little about the BA.2.86 variant at the moment, but a recent dose of a Covid vaccine like the one used in the UK has so far consistently provided decent protection against severe disease in many different variants, even though protection against milder disease was more variable between variants,” said the vaccine epidemiologist.
He added: “It should help protect the most vulnerable people in the country, as well as reduce the risk of overstretching the NHS.”