The UK could be at the start of a new Covid wave with parts of the country showing signs of a possible increase in cases. The early signs of a rise comes from a jump in infections from Omicron variant BA.1 as well as newer variants BA.4 and BA.5.
All four nations have seen a slight rise in the prevalence of the virus, though the Office for National Statistics describes the trend in Scotland and Wales as “uncertain”. The Guardian reports the variants may have evolved to make them more dangerous by refavouring infecting lung tissue.
A total of 989,800 people in private households in the UK are estimated to have had the virus in the week ending June 2, up from 953,900 the previous week, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is the first time total infections have risen week-on-week since the end of March, when the number hit a record 4.9 million at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave.
Omicron BA.1 is the original variant of Omicron that caused a surge in infections across the UK in December and early January. BA.4 and BA.5 are newer variants that were recently classified by the UK Health Security Agency as “variants of concern”, after analysis found both were likely to have a “growth advantage” over BA.2, which is still the dominant strain in the country.
Initial findings suggest BA.4 and BA.5 have a degree of “immune escape”, meaning the immune system can no longer recognise or fight a virus, which is likely to contribute to their growth advantage over BA.2, the UKHSA said.
Some 4,082 patients in England had Covid-19 on June 9, up 6% on the previous week, while in Scotland 637 patients were recorded on June 5, the latest date available, up 8% week on week.
Patient numbers in both nations had previously been on a steady downwards trend since early April, following the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave. In Wales and Northern Ireland, the figures for people in hospital with the virus have levelled off.
Patient numbers across the UK remain well below the peaks reached during previous waves of the virus.
The Guardian reports that in South Africa, BA.4 and BA.5 have been responsible for a second wave of Omicron infections beginning at the start of May, although this appears to be flattening off now.
While Research published in Science on Tuesday said natural infection with Omicron doesn’t produce a strong immune response, so those who have recovered from an Omicron infection could become reinfected.
The findings, from Prof Danny Altmann at Imperial College London and colleagues, could help explain why infection levels have remained high in countries such as the UK, despite so many already having been infected with it.
Date from the University of Tokyo in Japan suggested BA.4, BA.5 and BA.2.12.1 may refavour infecting lung cells, rather than upper respiratory tract tissue, the Guardian reported. It also quoted Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, saying: “It looks as though these things are switching back to the more dangerous form of infection, so going lower down in the lung.”