Fears of a fresh Covid resurgence were today heightened after the discovery of a new variant thought to be the ‘real deal’.
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.
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.
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
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’
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 vaccines will be offered to over-65s and the vulnerable later this year.
There are no signs 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.
Virus trackers say it has already been spotted in Denmark and Israel, suggesting it has started to circulate.
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, 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 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 Independent SAGE, a group of academics that called for No10 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 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.’
Professor Stephen Griffin, an infectious disease expert at the University of Leeds, told MailOnline 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 MailOnline the emergence of a new variant ‘is not surprising’ and repeated calls cautioning it was too early to panic.
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 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 told MailOnline: ‘If it is BA.6 that means it probably isn’t that different from what as 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.’
Last week UKHSA analysts estimated Covid positivity rates increased to 5.4 per cent, on the previous week, which itself saw a rise of 3.7 per cent. 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
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
It comes as the UKHSA declared EG.5.1, 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 per cent 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 told MailOnline that while it is necessary to monitor EG.5, ‘it will likely not drive up hospitalisations 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 coming weeks because of this variant. There is no indication that we need to change our practices at present.’
Meanwhile Professor Young told MailOnline: ‘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 emphasising 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.