02.03.2024

World Health Organization is now officially tracking ‘real deal’ Covid variant BA.X amid fears strain could explode and trigger fresh wave

A Covid variant dubbed the ‘real deal’ is being officially tracked by World Health Organization (WHO) officials. The Omicron spin-off — given the placeholder name as BA.X but yet to be officially designated — is now classified as a ‘currently circulating variant under monitoring‘ by the UN health agency.

Only three cases of the strain, first spotted last month, have been detected so far worldwide.

But health chiefs are concerned about its catalogue of mutations.

No cases have yet been detected in the UK. However, scientists claim that it’s likely already here if it’s as transmissible as first feared.

Some experts fear it has the potential to cause a fresh wave and have called for the return of face masks to slow the spread.

Others, however, have warned that it’s far too early to panic. Immunity levels remain high and over time the virus has become less deadly.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and lead for the Covid response at the WHO, cautioned there is very limited information available on the strain. But she said it needs monitoring due to its large number of mutations

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and lead for the Covid response at the WHO, cautioned there is very limited information available on the strain. But she said it needs monitoring due to its large number of mutations

In a flu and Covid surveillance report, the UK Health Security Agency noted that the prevalence of EG.5.1 had jumped to 25.7 per cent by the end of July (shown in green)

Alarm bells over the strain were first rung earlier this week, after a prominent online virus-tracker spotted two cases crop up in Denmark.

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.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and lead for the Covid response at the WHO, cautioned there is very limited information available on the strain.

But she said it needs monitoring due to its large number of mutations.

Surveillance and sequencing is ‘critical’ to detect new variants and track known ones, she added.

Scientists yesterday raised the alarm about BA.X, also known as BA.2.86, over its concerning collection of mutations.

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.’

Some scientists have already called for the return of face coverings to slow the spread of the strain.

Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, an internationally renowned expert in primary care, based at Oxford University, earlier this week 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.

UK health chiefs have yet to make any formal announcement on the variant.

They are, however, tracking another variant nicknamed Eris.

Eris, scientifically known as EG.5.1, made up 25.7 per cent of all sequenced cases in England the week to July 30, health bosses confirmed today.

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) bosses noted that the prevalence was up from 14.6 per cent a fortnight earlier.

However, experts say it shows no sign of being more dangerous than other strains circulating, including its fellow ancestor Omicron.

Covid hospital admissions jumped in the week to August 13. There were 3 virus hospitalisations per 100,000 people in England, up from 1.2 per 100,000 four weeks earlier (thick black line with dots)

Covid hospital admissions jumped in the week to August 13. There were 3 virus hospitalisations per 100,000 people in England, up from 1.2 per 100,000 four weeks earlier (thick black line with dots)

Admission rates jumped in all age groups apart from 15 to 24-year-olds. Levels were highest among the over-85s (32.6 per 100,000) and 75 to 84-year-olds (15.7 per 100,000)

Scientists have already called for the return of face masks because of the spin-off strain — yet to be officially named but dubbed BA.X. 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

Scientists have already called for the return of face masks because of the spin-off strain — yet to be officially named but dubbed BA.X. 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

Officials sequence around 240 samples from positive Covid tests every week to estimate the prevalence of each strain. Thousands were assessed at the height of the pandemic.

Covid hospitalisation rates are already starting to shoot up, sparking concern that the UK is on the brink of being hit by another wave as it heads into the autumn and winter when the NHS is busiest.

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.

Booster jabs will be offered to millions of over-65s, NHS workers and anyone who is deemed high-risk from October.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, said: ‘The latest data shows that Covid cases continue to rise.

‘To help combat the spread of the virus, we continue to advise anyone with symptoms of a respiratory infection should try to stay at home and away from others — especially those who are vulnerable.

‘Hospitalisations are also increasing, but still remain at very low levels.

‘ICU admissions have increased in this week’s report, but remain extremely low. We will continue to monitor these rates closely.

‘We urge everyone eligible to take up the vaccine when offered by the NHS this autumn.’

Despite the uptick in Covid and emergence of new variants, the Government has insisted it will never revert back to pandemic-era measures unless a doomsday variant emerges that sends the world back to square one.

Experts say fluctuations in case numbers will happen forevermore.

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.X.

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.

Is it more dangerous than other strains?

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 poses any more of a danger than others, including its ancestor Omicron.

Nor is it known if it causes other symptoms. All other variants spotted so far have been found to spark similar respiratory illness signs.

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.

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