Should we be worried about the new COVID-19 variant?

Older man with a clinician in a healthcare setting

We’ve been receiving a lot of questions about the BA.2.86 COVID variant, as people would like to know how it compares to other variants and what the implications might be for public health. It is important to note that to date only a small number of cases have been identified across the world, and we will need more data to draw any conclusions about the effect of these mutations on transmissibility and severity of the variant. In this blog post we’ll outline what we know so far and what action we are taking.

It’s normal for viruses to mutate and change, and more widely we’re still getting to grips with how the healthcare system responds to the ebb and flow of seasonal cases. As more data becomes available on this variant, we’ll have a better understanding of how it interacts with our immune systems and how to optimise our protection and as well as actions we can take to keep the most vulnerable safe and live our lives as normally as possible.

If people become unwell, and are unsure if they have COVID-19, what should they do?

The essential message for any respiratory infection is, if you’re feeling unwell and have the symptoms of a respiratory illness, or have a high temperature, you should avoid contact with vulnerable people and stay at home if possible.

For those of us who absolutely can’t stay at home, our Living with COVID guidance is unchanged, and outlines how to prevent transmission to others.

Why should people come forward for their vaccine?

Vaccines remain our best defence against severe disease and hospitalisation from flu and COVID-19 . That’s why we’re asking over-65s, anyone in a clinical risk group, and anyone living in a household with someone who is in a clinical risk group, to come forward for their vaccination. Their protection since their last vaccination will have waned and they remain at increased risk from a respiratory infection this winter. It’s also important to note that COVID-19 isn’t a special case; respiratory infections can be unpredictable, and we’re asking similar groups to get vaccinated against flu.

The government has decided to bring forward the COVID-19 autumn vaccination campaign, as a precautionary measure to ensure those people who are most vulnerable and at higher risk of severe disease have the best available protection. It can take a few weeks for protection to build after a vaccine, so getting vaccinated ahead of the winter season, when respiratory viruses tend to peak, is important.

What surveillance systems are in place?

We publish the latest surveillance data weekly, to the COVID-19 Dashboard. We’re also getting vital data from those who are admitted to hospital with symptoms, and we are utilising genome sequencing to understand which variants people are most vulnerable to.

There are also specific surveillance programmes in place, where small sample groups are tested regularly. These allow us to monitor trends in the wider community.

Hospital is where we will see the more severe cases, and we will be monitoring the numbers of people attending with COVID-19 symptoms very carefully. This will help us understand the growth rate and transmission potential of the new variant.

We continue to collaborate globally with health organisations in other countries, the World Health Organisation and initiatives such as the Global Influenza Surveillance & Response System (GISAID) to ensure that we have the most current data.

What is the UKHSA doing to tackle the new variant?

When a new variant appears on our radar, at the initial stages it is often quite difficult to know whether the mutations provide any advantages to the virus. Genetic mutations happen all the time, and in some cases have been known to make a virus less transmissible or cause a milder reaction in people.

At these early stages our scientists at the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) are busy growing a stock of the BA.2.86 variant in our high containment facilities, so that we can begin testing.

At the same time, scientists in our COVID-19 Vaccine Unit work hand in glove with vaccine developers to get samples of new, as yet unlicensed, vaccines to assess whether they will give better protection against the virus.

Vaccinations for flu and COVID-19 will give us good protection ahead of winter, when respiratory illnesses circulate in all our communities. They will help to keep vulnerable people out of hospital and carrying on with their day-to-day lives, as well as reduce pressure on our NHS which is always critical in the winter. If you’re eligible for the jabs, please don’t hesitate, book your vaccine and get winter strong.

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Contributor: Blog Editor