The UK is heading for a ‘devastating’ Covid wave this autumn exacerbated by a drop in testing and inadequate monitoring of new elusive immune subvariants, experts have warned.
Covid-19 infections in the UK have risen by 14% according to the latest figures.
Some 1.1million people in private households tested positive for coronavirus in the latest survey, which covers the seven days to September 17 in England and the week to September 20 in the other three countries, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
It is the first time the UK-wide total has exceeded one million since the end of August, although it is still well below the 3.8 million weekly infections in early July at the height of the wave. caused by Omicron BA.4 and BA. 5 sub-variants of the virus.
Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the Covid app ZOE, said The Independent the UK was already at the start of the next wave of coronavirus.
“It looks like we are at the start of the next wave and this time it hit older people a bit earlier than the last wave,” Prof Spector said.
He added: “A lot of people are still using the government symptom guidelines which are wrong. Currently, Covid starts in two-thirds of people with a sore throat. Fever and loss of smell are really rare now – so many older people may not think they have covid.
“They would say it’s a cold and wouldn’t be tested.”
Prof Spector said early data showed new subvariants of Omicron were becoming immune evasive and could cause ‘real problems’ in the UK as winter approaches with an NHS ‘already on its knees’ .
University of Warwick virologist Professor Lawrence Young said two subvariants of Omicron – BA.2.75.2 derived from BA.2 and BQ1.1 derived from BA.5 – were causing concern in first data and showed signs of being able to evade the immune system. system.
“What’s interesting about these variants is that although they were slightly different in how they appeared, they made the same changes to circumvent the body’s immune system,” said Professor Young. . The Independent.
“What we are seeing is that the virus evolves around immunity that has developed through vaccines and the countless infections that people have had.
He added: “The biggest concern we are seeing is that in early data these variants are starting to cause a slight increase in infections. In a way, this was to be expected, but it shows that we are not yet off the hook with this virus, unfortunately. »
Professor Young also warned that the downscaling of Covid testing labs since the unveiling of the government’s Living with Covid plan means the UK is “blind” to the behavior of potentially worrying new variants. The main NHS ‘Lighthouse’ labs closed earlier this year in line with the government’s policy on infection.
“We really took our eyes off the ball with the Covid tests,” he said. “We can only detect variants or know what is happening by doing sequencing from PCR tests and it is not happening at all like a year ago.
“People will catch various infections over the winter but won’t know what they are because there are no free tests available – that’s going to be a problem. Another angle is economic pressure. If people feel bad, they are unlikely to miss work. You have a perfect storm here, really, inadequate surveillance, people not showing up for vaccinations and the economic situation.
Both professors called on the government to send stronger and more proactive messages ahead of the winter chill, while Professor Young called for the return of mask-wearing in poorly ventilated and congested indoor spaces.
Additionally, public health experts have called for an increase in the use of booster shots, with Professor Young noting that new bivalent Covid vaccine boosters, which tackle more than one variant, were key to preventing a devastating wave. But he admitted there were still question marks over the effectiveness of vaccination in preventing vulnerable people from getting seriously ill.
Immunologist Professor Denis Kinane, who founded Covid testing company Cignpost Diagnostic, also expressed concern about the lack of free testing and monitoring of new variants.
“While cases are currently on the rise, we don’t yet know the full extent of what’s to come in the fall and winter. However, with mass attendance events like the FIFA World Cup taking place in November, rapidly growing international travel, differing vaccination levels across the globe, and most countries having relaxed entry requirements, an increase in cases and the emergence of new variants cannot be excluded. outside,” Professor Kinane told The Independent.
Sarah Crofts, ONS deputy director for the investigation of Covid-19 infections, said it was ‘too early to determine if this is the start of a new wave’ .
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programs at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said it was “clear now that we are seeing an increase” in levels of Covid-19.
“Cases have started to climb and hospitalizations are increasing in the older age groups. In the coming weeks, we expect a dual threat of low immunity and widely spread flu and Covid-19, creating an unpredictable winter and further strain on health services,” she added.
The number of people hospitalized with coronavirus throughout 2022 remained well below levels seen in 2020 and early 2021, before vaccines were rolled out.