As Omicron lineage mutations rise, researchers anticipate a “major” wave this fall.
By the end of November, a “swarm” of fresh Covid subvariants may cause a new wave to sweep across Europe and North America, according to scientists.
Recent statistics reveal a 14% increase in Covid-19 infections as subvariants of the Omicron family exhibit immune evasiveness.
According to the University of Basel’s Biozentrum research laboratory, which has been tracking the virus’ evolution since the epidemic began, there is a “collective” of subvariants that are demonstrating a capacity for rapid transmission.
BQ1. and BA.2.75.2 are two novel subvariants that researchers worry could cause a “major wave” as long as the cold weather lasts.
“The trends we’re seeing at the moment are very different from what’s happened in the past,” Cornelius Roemer, a computational biologist with Biozentrum, told The Independent.
“Omicron was maybe the first variant that was good at evading immunity and that’s why it caused such a large wave. Now for the first time, we see many lineages, many variants emerging parallel that all have very similar mutations and that all manage to still evade immunity pretty well,” he said.
The current outbreak of infections presents a new challenge for researchers because, for the first time, there isn’t a single standout variant of concern but rather a collection or “swarm” of subvariants, according to Mr. Roemer, who analyzes Covid sequencing data from various lab databases worldwide and is a member of the UK-led Pango Network that names new variants.
The situation with new subvariants is continually shifting, he continued, including this week’s discovery of the immunological evasive mutation XBB in China.
Although Mr. Roemer noted concern that cases are rising before the new subvariants have significantly accelerated and made up the majority of new cases, he noted that when compared to earlier waves, the new subvariants are exhibiting trends that may match more closely with the unexpected BA.5 led summer wave.
“The thing now in the northern hemisphere is as temperatures are going down there is already a bit of a wave without the variants having much impact,” Mr Roemer said.
“The variants start accelerating when they reach 50 per cent of cases but we’re very far from that. All together the new variants are only around 5-10 per cent of new cases.
“That’s what’s a bit worrying,” he added, “That we already have cases going up and we know that there will be another surge due to the variants.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.1 million private homes tested positive for coronavirus in the most recent survey, which covered the week ending on September 20 in the other three countries and the seven days ending on September 17 in England (ONS).
Although it is still much below the 3.8 million weekly infections in early July during the peak of the wave brought on by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the virus, it is the first time the UK-wide total has exceeded one million since late August.
Covid instances are also increasing over some of Europe. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recently released statistics showing that cases among individuals over 65 increased by 9% in September, marking the first increase in the region since the summer wave.
By the end of November, Mr. Roemer predicts that the new subvariants could cause a wave across Europe and North America based on their growth trends.
Professor Richard Neher, the director of the Biozentum research group, concurred that a wave had already started, driven by the BA.2 and BA.5 offshoots. He stressed that even though the number of cases is rising, which could strain health systems if more people need to be hospitalized, a sizable section of the population was immunized, reducing the likelihood of a serious disease.
“It is vaccinations that have led us out of this pandemic. And they will remain an important measure to prevent severe cases in the fall and winter,” Professor Neher said.
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Professor James Young, a virologist, claimed that the UK is “blind” to the behavior of new possible variations of concern due to the downscaling of Covid testing laboratories since the government’s Living with Covid programme was unveiled. Major NHS “Lighthouse” labs were forced to close early this year to comply with the government’s anti-infection strategy.
“We’ve really taken our eye off the ball with Covid tests,” Professor Young told The Independent. “We can only detect variants or know what’s coming by doing sequencing from PCR testing, and that’s not going on anywhere near the extent it was a year ago.
“People are going to get various infections over the winter but won’t know what they are because free tests aren’t available – it’s going to be a problem.”
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By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter
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