Health chiefs declare two new Covid ‘variants of concern’ – but experts say there is NO reason to panic
Two types of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 have been newly classified as variants of concern in the UK, but experts say there is no need to worry.
Only a small number of cases of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 have been identified in Britain so far.
But analysis of the available data suggests they are likely to have a ‘growth advantage’ over Omicron BA.2, currently the dominant variant, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
UKHSA said there could be many reasons why the new variants have a growth advantage over BA.2 but lab tests suggested they are likely to have some ability to evade the protection provided from previous infection and vaccines.
As of May 20, 115 cases of probable or confirmed BA.4 had been identified, with 67 in England, 41 in Scotland, six in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
Some 80 cases of BA.5 have been identified, with 48 in England, 25 in Scotland, six in Northern Ireland and one in Wales.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said there was no need to panic about the new variants as there no current evidence of increased disease severity.
‘I have also not seen any indication that severity is altered so to what degree a wave might be followed by a rise in hospital cases is unclear,’ he said.
‘So, disappointing news in the sense that it may reverse the current downward trend but otherwise no real need to worry yet.
He added that it was also possible the new variants could actually be even milder than Omicron, but added only time will tell.
‘It is also possible that it is another step on the virus’ inevitable journey to a trivial infection in an essentially immune population, in which case it may not need any particular attention,’ he said.
Concerns over the new variants comes as the latest data shows Covid cases have continued to collapse in England with the outbreak now reaching its lowest level since mid-December last year.
Only a small number of cases of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 have been identified so far, but analysis of the available data suggests they are likely to have a ‘growth advantage’ over Omicron BA.2, currently the dominant variant, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA)
UKHSA said further studies on the new variants are underway.
BA.4 and BA.5 were first detected in South Africa in January and February this year, respectively where cases soared in April.
Another British expert, Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist from Warwick University said current data showed current vaccines were holding up against the new variants.
‘Although there is no evidence of increased severity over previous variants, BA.4 and BA.5 appear to be more transmissible,’ he said.
‘The good news is that current vaccines appear to be holding up against these new variants and protecting from severe disease.’
He added however that the emergence of these new variants showed the need to continue to monitor Covid cases for new versions of the virus, highlighting the need for continued surveillance of the virus through testing.
The UK’s decision to declare BA.4 and BA.5 as variants of concern, comes a week after a similar decision by European health authorities.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates just over one million, or one in 55 people, had the virus on any day in England in the week to May 13.
This is down week-on-week from 1.2 million, or one in 45.
Similar falls were recorded in the other UK nations, with just one in 45 people in Scotland, one in 40 in Wales and one in 60 in Northern Ireland estimated to have the virus.
This is now the sixth week in a row that the ONS’s weekly survey — now the best barometre of the outbreak — has reported a week-on-week fall in cases, despite no Covid restrictions being in place.
The Government is relying on the study, based on swabs of 120,000 random people, to track the virus now that free testing has been axed for the vast majority of Britons.
In total, infections are now roughly a quarter what they were at the peak of the recent Omicron wave at the end of March, when a record 4.9 million people were estimated to have Covid.
Covid numbers for last week are now back to levels last seen in early December, when infections had just started to rise due to the spread of the original Omicron variant.
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