The UK is entering a ‘devastating’ Covid wave this autumn, exacerbated by a drop in testing and inadequate monitoring of elusive new subvariants of the immune system, experts have warned.
Covid-19 infections in the UK have risen by 14%, according to the latest figures.
Around 1.1 million 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 NOS).
It is the first time the UK-wide total has exceeded one million since the end of August, although it is still slightly below the 3.8 million weekly infections at the start of July, at the height of the wave. caused by Omicron BA..4 and BA. 5 viral subvariants.
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’re at the start of the next wave and this time it hit the elderly right before the last wave,” Spector said.
He added: “A lot of people are still using the wrong government symptom guidelines. Currently, Covid starts in two-thirds of people with sore throats. Fever and loss of smell are really rare now – many older people may not think they have covid.
“They would say it’s a cold and don’t get tested.”
Spector said early data showed new Omicron subvariants were becoming immune elusive 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 the ability to evade the immune system.
“What’s interesting about these variants is that although they were slightly different in how they appeared, they showed the same changes to circumvent the body’s immune system,” Young said. The Independent.
“What we’re seeing is that the virus evolves around the immunity that’s developed through vaccines and the countless infections that people have had.
He added: “The biggest concern we see is that in the initial 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 infection policy.
“We really took our eyes off the ball with the Covid tests,” he said. “We can only detect variants or know what comes next by sequencing PCR tests and it’s not happening to the same extent as it was a year ago.
“People will get lots of infections over the winter, but they won’t know what they are because there’s no free testing – that’s going to be a problem. Another angle is economic pressure. If people are feeling bad, chances are they won’t miss work. You have a perfect storm here, really, of inadequate surveillance, people not showing up for vaccinations, and the economic situation.
Both teachers called for stronger, proactive messaging from the government ahead of the colder winter, while Prof Young called for a return to wearing masks in poorly ventilated and crowded indoor spaces.
In addition, public health experts have called for an increase in the use of booster vaccines, with Professor Young noting that new bivalent Covid vaccine boosters, which treat more than one variant, have been instrumental in the prevention of 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 Denis Kinane, who founded Covid testing company Cignpost Diagnostic, also raised concerns about the lack of free testing and monitoring of new variants.
“As cases increase, we still don’t know the full extent of what lies ahead in the fall and winter. However, with mass participation events such as the FIFA World Cup taking place in November, international travel is increasing rapidly, different vaccination levels across the world and most countries having relaxed entry requirements, an increase in cases and the emergence of newer variants cannot be excluded. “Prof Kinane told The Independent.
Sarah Crofts, ONS deputy director for Covid-19 infection research, said it was ‘too early to tell if this is the start of a new wave’.
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 rise and hospitalizations are increasing in older age groups. In the coming weeks, we expect a dual threat of low immunity and widely spread influenza and Covid-19, creating an unpredictable winter and further strain on health services,” he added.
The number of people hospitalized with coronavirus throughout 2022 remained well below the levels seen in 2020 and early 2021, before the vaccines came out.