Warnings of back-to-school Covid wave as new variant hits Europe

A leading professor has warned a large Covid wave could hit this September as children go back to school and adults return to the office after the summer holidays.

Writing an op-ed in the British Medical Journal, University College London professor Christina Pagel said waning protection from vaccines in under 50s, most of whom have not had a dose for 18 months, and under 75s who were last jabbed in 2022, has left the population more susceptible to the latest Omicron substrains.

This, combined with the autumn back-to-school period and more time spent indoors, could drive a large wave in the coming weeks.

‘Given protection from vaccines and past infection, it is unlikely that this wave will cause a large surge in hospital admissions or deaths,’ said Professor Pagel, who also sits on the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

‘However, any increase in hospital burden is bad news, given record waiting lists for diagnosis and treatment and persistently high waits in hospitals for admission. 

‘Infection is also not harmless simply because it’s causing fewer hospital admissions – long Covid remains an ongoing significant problem, damaging people’s lives, such as through persistent fatigue or brain fog, as well as taking them out of the workforce.’

The year to date has seen much smaller waves than witnessed in 2022, which was driven by different Omicron variants. Professor Pagel suggests this is because new Omicron substrains ‘have not been sufficiently different to drive very large waves in the presence of a highly vaccinated and highly previously infected population’.

However, she did highlight the discovery of a new, as yet unnamed variant found in Israel and Denmark in recent days.

‘[This] has caught the attention of many experts because it has so many new mutations, some long associated with increased fitness and immune escape, and others entirely new,’ she said.

In recent weeks Covid cases have been soaring due to the arrival of Eris, officially labelled EG.5, a highly transmissible substrain of the Omicron variant, known as BA.5. 

However, some scientists have already dubbed the latest variant BA.6, suggesting it could be a distinct variant from Omicron.

‘So far, we have only three sequences although geographic spread means community transmission has occurred,’ said Professor Pagel. ‘It is still quite possible that this fizzles out – either because its hosts don’t happen to infect anyone or because, despite its novelty, it does not outcompete the current dominant XBB strains [Omicron substrains].’

‘However, this should act as a reminder that without ramping up surveillance, and in the face of waning immunity, we are travelling into winter more vulnerable and with blinkers on.’

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