A new Covid variant labelled the ‘real deal’ may already be in the UK, scientists claimed today. The Omicron spin-off — dubbed BA.6 but yet to be officially named — has sparked concerns of a fresh wave because of its catalogue of mutations.
Only two countries — Denmark and Israel — have spotted it so far.
But experts told MailOnline that, if the strain is proven to be as troublesome as first feared, it could spread ‘very soon’.
Professor Paul Hunter, a world-renowned infectious disease specialist based at the University of East Anglia, said it ‘probably’ is already in the UK or US if the strain is more contagious than existing variants. He added: ‘If it isn’t now, then it probably very soon will be.’
Scientists have already called for the return of face masks because of the spin-off strain — yet to be officially named but dubbed BA.6. Others, however, warned it is far too early to panic and argued that pandemic-era restrictions won’t be needed. Covid hospitalisation rates are already starting to shoot up, sparking concern that the UK is on the brink of being hit by another wave
Some scientists have already called for the return of face masks because of the spin-off strain.
Others, however, have warned it is far too early to panic and stressed that lockdown-era restrictions won’t be needed.
Health chiefs have yet to make any formal announcement on the variant, which was first detected towards the end of July.
But one epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, tasked with tracking viral threats such as Covid, said it could be ‘Pi’, the letter which follows Omicron in the Greek alphabet — the system officials use to name new strains.
Alarm bells were only rung earlier this week, after a prominent online virus-tracker spotted two cases crop up in Denmark.
What is the new variant? How dangerous is it? And is it more infectious than other Covid strains? What we know so far
What is the strain?
The spin-off strain is yet to be officially named but it has already been dubbed BA.6.
Viruses constantly change through mutation and sometimes these mutations result in new variants.
Where has it been spotted?
The variant has already been spotted in Denmark and Israel in July, suggesting it has started to circulate.
Health chiefs have yet to make any formal announcement on it.
But one epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, tasked with tracking viral threats like Covid, said it could be ‘Pi’, the letter which follows Omicron in the Greek alphabet — the system officials use to name new strains.
The variant also follows the arrival of another variant, nicknamed Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1.
Why has it sparked concern?
The strain was originally highlighted by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’.
Meanwhile, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent SAGE, said: ‘To everyone else — very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in 2 countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’
Experts believe the variant has over 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.
However, they have warned that it is too early to panic and that lockdowns or other pandemic-era restrictions won’t be needed.
How deadly are the symptoms?
A rise in cases could put health services under pressure.
Typically Covid symptoms are known to include a high fever, cough, cold and loss of the sense of taste or smell.
However, there are no signs yet the newly discovered variant, which is different to Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1, poses any more of a danger than others, including its ancestor Omicron.
Do the vaccines still work?
It is still unclear whether the new variant has any increased ability to evade protection from vaccines compared to other Omicron spin-offs.
Even if the vaccines do not work perfectly against the variant, immunity is likely to still hold up, with most Brits also having been exposed to former Omicron variants.
High levels of protection against the virus gave ministers in the UK the confidence to ditch all Covid measures last year as the country moved to living with the virus.
The discovery came just a day after the same lineage was detected in Israel.
Virologists know all three are the same virus because of the collection of mutations they carry.
A process called ‘sequencing’ allows scientists to find the exact genetic make-up of every virus sample.
Early tests show BA.6 carries more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.
This is the same piece of the virus that vaccines are designed to target.
Several have unknown functions but others are thought to help the virus evade the immune system.
However, it still remains unclear if it will succeed in spreading efficiently, or if it will just fizzle out like many other heavily mutated variants.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline today the variant ‘has the potential to spread in the UK’.
He said: ‘Past experience indicates if a new variant is identified that has the ability to compete with other variants and spread more effectively, it inevitably appears in the UK.
‘International travel and mixing in airports and on holiday makes it difficult to prevent the introduction of new variants.’
However, Professor Young said that it was ‘too early to know’ whether it will be more infectious and overtake the currently dominant XBB variants.
He added: ‘It carries many mutations, some of which have been previously associated with increased infectivity and immune escape, and some new mutations which make the behaviour of this variant unpredictable.
‘It is a worry that we have let our guard down with regard to testing and the surveillance of virus variants.
‘Despite popular opinion, Covid hasn’t gone away and, as we can see from the current increase in infections, the virus hasn’t settled into a seasonal winter pattern.
‘While we must be careful to not panic every time a new variant — or should that be scariant — is detected, all this serves to remind us that we need to remain vigilant and that Covid isn’t over.’
T. Ryan Gregory, a Canadian evolutionary biologist, yesterday labelled the new strain ‘interesting and potentially concerning’.
The fact it has been spotted in two countries was ‘concerning because it’s clearly not restricted to one region’, he said.
It means, in theory, it may yet be ‘going undetected in some countries’.
Meanwhile, Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, told MailOnline: ‘Wave after wave of SARS-CoV2 infection is inevitable.
‘Very few, if any people who haven’t acquired some level of immunity through natural infection, vaccination or both’.
‘Our body is constantly under surveillance by an army of memory cells, ready to recognise and deal with viruses if we become re-exposed.
‘They might not stop us from being infected but they respond and multiple rapidly, mutating to keep pace with virus mutation, often becoming more potent and more cross-reactive.
‘And this mobilised army protects us from the most serious disease.’
Covid however ‘continues to be a real threat for the most vulnerable people in our population’, he cautioned.
‘Thus is why it is so important that you get booster vaccine if you are offered one.’
However, others cautioned the SARS-CoV-2 virus is ‘mutating constantly’ and there is ‘always concern’ a new variant ‘may be better able to evade immunity’.
Professor Azeem Majeed, head of the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, told MailOnline: ‘The SARS-CoV-2 virus that is the cause of Covid is mutating continually.
‘Each time a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 emerges, there is always a concern it may be better able to evade immunity (from vaccination and prior infection) or cause more serious illness than previous variants.
In a tweet, Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary healthcare expert at the University of Oxford, also wrote: ‘My various science WhatsApp groups are buzzing. Genetic lineage clips and diagrams flying back and forth.’ The professor, who is also a member of the group Independent SAGE added: ‘I understand little of the detail but it looks like it’s once again time to MASK UP’
Meanwhile, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent SAGE, said: ‘To everyone else — very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in 2 countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’ It is ‘potentially more able to cause a big wave’, she added
The strain was originally highlighted by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’. He wrote: ‘Two more sequences of this 2nd-generation BA.2 lineage just showed up in Denmark. This is the real deal. There are slight differences between the three sequences, but they are nearly identical’
‘However, thus far, vaccines continue to provide good protection against serious illness and death for most people irrespective of the circulating variants.
‘We don’t have enough information yet to draw clear conclusions about the newer variants but the Government’s policy in the UK of offering regular vaccine boosters to key population groups will help limit their impact.’
Following news of the variant, Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, an internationally renowned expert in primary care, based at Oxford University, yesterday tweeted that ‘it looks like it’s once again time to MASK UP’.
The professor, who is also a member of Independent Sage, a group of academics that called for No 10 to adopt an Australian-style Covid elimination strategy early on in the pandemic, acknowledged that she understood ‘little of the detail’, however.
Meanwhile, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent Sage, said: ‘To everyone else — very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in two countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’
It is ‘potentially more able to cause a big wave’, she added.
Writing in the BMJ yesterday on rising Covid cases seen in the UK, she also detailed ‘two major concerns’.
She added: ‘The first seems, unfortunately, quite plausible — a repeat of last winter’s unprecedented NHS crisis of Covid, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus, hit all around the same time.’
She said: ‘The second is less likely but would have a bigger impact—another Omicron like event where a new variant emerges, very different from previous strains so that our hard won protection is much less protective.
‘Given few, if any, mitigations worldwide and much lower surveillance, such a variant could spread a long way before we realised it was a problem.’
Covid hospitalisation rates are already starting to shoot up, sparking concern that the UK is on the brink of being hit by another wave.
The increase in infections follows the arrival of another variant, nicknamed Eris. It already makes up one in seven new Covid cases in Britain, health chiefs say.
Experts have speculated the bad weather and the ‘Barbenheimer effect’ – referring to the release of Barbie and Oppenheimer – might have also contributed to the rise in infections, as well as waning immunity.
NHS hospital data also shows daily Covid admissions in England have increased by a third in a week, rising from 171 on July 28, to 229 on August 4, the latest figures available.
Hospitalisations had been freefalling nationally since March, from a peak of almost 1,200.
But, current admission levels are nowhere near levels seen earlier in the pandemic, when a high of 4,100 were logged per day.
And, as time has worn on, fewer and fewer are directly down to the virus. Instead, many patients are just coincidentally ill.