Britain’s Covid vaccination drive should be immediately opened up to all over-50s, experts have claimed amid growing concern over Arcturus. The new variant — thought to be the most infectious which has spawned since the pandemic — already makes up one in 40 new cases in the UK.
Its explosion onto the scene has sparked fears it might drive a fresh wave, mirroring chaotic scenes in India, where some mask mandates have already been reimposed in order to curb the virus’s resurgence.
Over-75s are the only age group currently eligible to get another Covid jab as part of the Government’s latest booster programme.
However, all care home residents and anyone aged 12+ and deemed at risk because of their health conditions will be offered one, too.
Surveillance data shows the strain, scientifically called XBB.1.16, makes up roughly 2.3 per cent of all new cases. Separate unofficial figures suggest around 65,000 Brits are getting infected each day
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist based at Warwick University, told MailOnline the eligibility should be expanded.
He said: ‘We should be providing booster jabs to at least all over-50s to ensure levels of protection are maintained against Arcturus, and any other variants that arise, over the coming months.
‘Covid isn’t done with us yet and will continue to change.
‘We need to remain vigilant.’
Professor Young, who was critical of the Government’s approach during the easing of anti-Covid measures this time last year, added: ‘The worry is that with reduced levels of surveillance in the UK, waning immunity from previous infections and vaccinations, poor uptake of the Spring booster jab, and the general level of complacency, we are not well-equipped to handle another wave of infection.’
Professor Anna Whittaker, an expert in vaccines and behavioural medicine from the University of Stirling, said: ‘Covid has not gone away.
‘I would like to see it (another booster jab) offered at younger ages such as 50-plus if that were possible, given many in their 50s have significant comorbidities.’
Britain’s latest vaccine roll out opened up three weeks ago.
But, unlike the other drives, there hasn’t been as much fanfare surrounding the project, with those eligible being contacted directly to book an appointment.
Health chiefs have repeated pleas urging the vulnerable to come forward for the jab but since people are being targeted primarily via the NHS App in this rollout there hasn’t been the same overall level of public messaging.
A separate Covid monitoring project, run by health-tech firm ZOE, has also found that Covid rates have dipped since the end of March
India now accounts for 61 per cent of all recorded cases of XBB.1.16, UKHSA officials warned. The dominant variant in the country, between March 20 and April 3, over two thirds (68 per cent) of all cases logged were the Arcturus strain. Separate figures from the Oxford University-run platform Our World in Data show new daily cases hit 9,526 six days ago on April 18, up from 625 recorded one month earlier
Last year’s Spring scheme also only offered jabs to the over-75s but another booster jab in Autumn also included the over 50s.
It comes as MailOnline today revealed that five Brits have already died after getting Arcturus.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chiefs have detected 135 cases of the Omicron spin-off, which first reached Britain in mid-February.
Only one region, the North East, has yet to see it.
But the case toll — based on genomic surveillance — will be a massive undercount because only a fraction of samples are now tested thoroughly.
Surveillance data shows the strain, scientifically called XBB.1.16, makes up roughly 2.3 per cent of all new cases.
Separate unofficial figures suggest around 65,000 Brits are getting infected each day.
Leading experts insist that there’s no proof the strain is any more severe than others circulating.
Nowadays the illness caused by the coronavirus closely resembles that of flu, unlike during the earliest days of the pandemic.
While the rapid rise in Covid cases is of some concern, it is still far below the devastating wave the country experienced in 2021 from the Delta variant
Other Omicron sub-variants include Kraken (XBB.1.5) and Orthrus (CH.1.1). Currently Kraken remains the dominant strain in the UK, as of April 14, causing 44 per cent of cases, while Omicron accounts from 8 per cent and Arcturus, 2.3 per cent, the UKHSA said
Dr Simon Clarke, an infectious disease expert at Reading University, cautioned that concern about Arcturus is premature.
He said: ‘While we know that (Arcturus) has caused a handful of fatalities, we don’t know the circumstances surrounding those cases and it might be far too premature to react.
‘The coming months and years will bring constant waves of new Covid variants.
‘But panicked reaction to each one could lead to public indifference to something which really could require a concerted response.’
Professor Francois Balloux, a vocal commentator throughout the pandemic, from University College London, said the previous Kraken (XBB.1.5) Omicron subvariant wave in the UK could explain why Britain hadn’t seen a similar explosion in cases.
‘In places that didn’t have an XBB.1.5 wave (e.g. India or China), it is expected to do well,’ he said.
‘Conversely, in places like the UK, it is not expected to have much of an impact on case numbers, and even less so, on hospitalisations and deaths.’
He added: ‘XBB.1.16 is still at low frequency here in the UK, but it may become the next dominant variant in the future.’
Arcturus, technically known as XBB.1.16 but given its name by Covid variant trackers, has already swept across places like India where it has sparked a 90-fold increase in cases and seen mask mandates imposed in the worst hit areas.