12.04.2024

Gloomy scientists call for people to start wearing Covid masks again

Experts today sounded the alarm over a fresh Covid wave after detecting a variant that has ‘a lot of new mutations‘. Some UK scientists — known for making gloomy predictions earlier in the pandemic — are so concerned they have advised people to mask up again.

The new sub-strain — which doesn’t have an official name but has been dubbed BA.6 — has only been spotted in two countries so far, Denmark and Israel.

But it is causing concern among some due to the number of mutations it has on its spike protein, the piece of the virus that vaccines were designed to target.

The variant may make shots less effective if it has evolved to look different enough from its ancestral strain, Omicron — though most experts argue no new strain will completely escape immunity from vaccines and prior infection.

The above shows hospitalizations in the US. These have risen by 14 percent over the last week and are up 60 percent from the record low recorded last month

The above shows hospitalizations in the US. These have risen by 14 percent over the last week and are up 60 percent from the record low recorded last month

Covid deaths, however, continue to decline — although they take longer to start rising than hospitalizations

Covid deaths, however, continue to decline - although they take longer to start rising than hospitalizations

In a tweet, Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary healthcare expert at the University of Oxford, 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’

In a tweet, Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary healthcare expert at the University of Oxford, 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'

Other experts say there is no need to panic and are confident pandemic-era restrictions are not needed.

It comes as the US battles a small uptick in Covid cases caused by a different variant dubbed Eris that makes up nearly one in five new infections.

Covid hospitalizations have risen 14 percent in a week to 10,320. That is still a fraction of the more than 100,000 patients that were being hospitalized at the peak of the country’s pandemic.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already suggested booster vaccines should be rolled out this fall, but these will be focused on the XBB variants that caused trouble earlier in the year rather than either of the new strains.

They are likely to be offered to older adults in the US, alongside the flu shots dished out every year.

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?

Virus trackers say the variant has been spotted in Denmark and Israel, suggesting it has started to circulate.

It follows the arrival of another variant, nicknamed Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.

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 that the newly discovered variant, which is different from Eris, known scientifically as EG.5, 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 an 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 a policy of ‘living with the virus’.

There are no signs at this stage that the newly discovered variant, which is different to Eris, known scientifically as EG.5, poses any more of a danger than others, including its ancestor Omicron.

Experts believe the variant has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.

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.

A total of three cases have been detected to date, but experts believe this is just the top of the iceberg because only a fraction of diagnosed Covid infections are actually checked for variants.

Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, an internationally-renowned expert in primary care based at the University of Oxford, tweeted that ‘it looks like it’s once again time to MASK UP’.

The professor, who is also a member of the UK’s Independent SAGE, a group of academics that called for the UK government to adopt an Australian-style Covid elimination strategy early on in the pandemic, acknowledged that she understood ‘little of the detail’, however.

Dr Eric Topol, a physician at Scripps Research in California, warned: ‘Keep an eye on this SARS-CoV-2 variant that has popped up in Israel and Denmark with more than 30 mutations in the spike protein.’

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.’

Scientists are concerned by the mutations to its spike protein because these make antibodies — virus-fighting proteins — less able to bind to them and prevent infection.

A higher number of mutations means current immunity is less effective, raising the risk that the virus can gain a foothold.

Scientists point out, however, that there are other sections of the immune system — such as T-cells — that will still be able to detect and fight off the virus.

Professor Stephen Griffin, an infectious disease expert at the University of Leeds, told DailyMail.com that the variant ‘represents a far greater change in the genetic makeup of the virus’ and is ‘reminiscent of the first emergence’ of Omicron in late 2021.

He added: ‘It is too early to tell whether this «jump» in evolution will lead to a virus «fit» enough to dominate in the same way as BA.1 and BA.2 and other variants of concern once did, but there are a number of mutations that may cause concern if it does start to spread.

‘These types of changes typically take a long time to become established in concert, but the source of these new viruses is not immediately clear.

‘Of course, our limited surveillance now makes this job much harder.’

He said: ‘Ultimately, whether or not humans declare that a public health emergency is over, the virus will carry on its course, regardless.

‘The best way to future proof against this is a combined vaccine and mitigation-based approach. Worryingly, in the UK, we are currently winding both of these aspects down.’

Experts also told DailyMail.com the emergence of a new variant ‘is not surprising’ and repeated calls cautioning it was too early to panic.

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

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'

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’

Last week UKHSA analysts estimated Covid positivity rates increased to 5.4 percent, on the previous week, which itself saw a rise of 3.7 percent. Leading experts fear the outbreak will continue to pick up pace in the coming weeks as part of the virus’s natural cycle

UKHSA officials say they are 'closely' monitoring the spread of the virus. The UK however is no longer publishing daily infection numbers because so few tests are being carried out after the pandemic

UKHSA officials say they are ‘closely’ monitoring the spread of the virus. The UK however is no longer publishing daily infection numbers because so few tests are being carried out after the pandemic

Covid and flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed last week. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said: ‘With a soup of different Omicron variants virus continuing to infect people around the world, the emergence of a more infectious variant is not surprising.

‘Not much is known about this variant. We will continue to see new variants popping up as the virus continues to spread and adapt.

‘This might all be manageable as long as these are all variants on the Omicron background, as many people have already been exposed to infection with different Omicron variants and the vaccine booster is likely to have been adapted to cover the Omicron family.’

He added: ‘The biggest worry is that a Covid variant from a different background — delta or completely new lineage — will re-emerge as a new variant and this could really be problematic.’

Meanwhile, Professor Paul Hunter, a respected infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia said: ‘If it is BA.6 that means it probably isn’t that different from what has gone before and so unlikely to be an important threat but time will tell.’

He added: ‘Since Omicron the balance of evidence is that masking no longer is associated with much if any reduced infection rates either in hospitals, schools or the community.

‘Masking may still have value in reducing the severity of infection in particularly vulnerable people.’

It comes as the UKHSA declared EG.5, dubbed Eris, a new Covid variant earlier this month, with World Health Organization (WHO) chiefs last week listing it a ‘variant of interest’.

It has now been recorded in 51 countries, the UN health agency confirmed.

It has quickly become dominant in America, accounting for one in five infections, while in Japan it is estimated to account for up to 46 percent of all cases.

However, in a risk evaluation last week the WHO concluded: ‘Collectively, available evidence does not suggest that EG.5 has additional public health risks relative to the other currently circulating Omicron descendent lineages.’

The Government has insisted it will never revert back to pandemic-era measures unless a doomsday variant emerges.

Experts say fluctuations in case numbers will happen forevermore.

Professor Hunter said that while it is necessary to monitor EG.5, ‘it will likely not drive up hospitalizations much’.

He added: ‘EG.5 will have played only a minor role in the recent wave we have seen in July.

‘But we may see cases rising a bit more over the coming weeks because of this variant. There is no indication that we need to change our practices at present.’

Meanwhile Professor Young added: ‘The boosters should be a good match for this and any newer variants – assuming that this will be the available vaccine in the UK.

‘However, the delay in vaccinating the most vulnerable until October and the current increase in infections stresses the immediate need for additional public health and social measures.

‘This is particularly important before children return to school, students start back at university and folk return to work after their summer holidays.’

He added: ‘Encouraging the wearing of facemasks in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces, and improving ventilation in indoor spaces are simple measures which we know are effective at limiting the spread of the virus.

‘Some public health messaging emphasizing the value of these measures in protecting the population from widespread infection and in helping the NHS through what will be another challenging winter would be welcome.’

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.

Hospitalizations had been freefalling nationally since March, from a peak of almost 1,200.

The beginning of July however, saw these numbers begin an uptick, rising slightly.

But, current admission levels are nowhere near levels seen earlier in the pandemic, when a high of 4,100 admissions were logged per day.

And, as time has worn on, fewer and fewer admissions are directly down to the virus. Instead, many patients are just coincidentally ill.

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