Covid and flu autumn vaccine rollouts kick off TODAY: Care home residents invited for jab one month early amid fears over mutant Pirola variant
- More than 30 UK Pirola cases have now been recorded, up from just 3 last week
- READ MORE: Could we be facing Covid lockdown? Experts weigh-in on Pirola
Millions of Brits can now come forward for Covid and flu jabs as the autumn roll-out kicked off today, amid concerns over the new mutant variant, Pirola.
Experts fear the strain, scientifically known as BA.2.86, poses a potential threat to the NHS as the health service heads into the normally busier autumn period.
Concerns over the variant led to health officials last month to u-turn on the booster jab drive start date, bringing it forwards from October to September 11.
At the time Ministers said they had made the decision to reduce pressure on the health service while scientists rush to learn more about Pirola.
Starting today residents at around 3,500 care home sites, staff and housebound people will start to be given another jab.
Covid and flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic
While virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint BA.2.86 specific symptoms, its ancestor BA.2 had some tell-tale signs. Experts aren’t yet certain, however if it behaves like similar Omicron subvariants, the signs to watch out for include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue
While the variant has not been classified as a ‘variant of concern’ yet by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), it has said it is monitoring the strain closely. This UKHSA graphic shows the number of Pirola cases by date the test containing the infected sample was received. Cases surged on August 26 shortly after the start of the care home outbreak in Norfolk
Millions of others including those aged 65 and over, people in at-risk groups and the immunosuppressed – will begin to be invited by the NHS to get their jabs from next week.
While the variant has not been classified as a ‘variant of concern’ yet by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), it has said it is monitoring the strain closely.
Of the cases in England, 28 came from a single outbreak in a care home in Norfolk, which infected 87 per cent of residents and left one hospitalised.
Global cases of the Pirola have doubled in the last week and has now been detected in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa , Portugal, Sweden, France, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland. Health experts fear it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected
Health chiefs said this signals a ‘high attack rate’ and could be an early indicator that the strain spreads easily indoors.
While only two cases have been confirmed in Scotland, more are also suspected.
Traces of the variant have been found in wastewater analysis by Scottish authorities.
Scientists can test community wastewater samples to monitor the prevalence of the virus through the stools of infected people.
Latest Covid wastewater sampling data in Scotland also shows it has hit its highest level in over a year at 167 mgc/p/d. It last rose to this figure in June 2022.
No Pirola cases have been detected in Wales or Northern Ireland.
Speaking to Sky News this morning, UKHSA chief Susan Hopkins said the variant has ‘about 30 mutations compared to Omicron’ when it emerged in December 2021, and around ’50 mutations compared to the original wildtype virus’ which started the pandemic.
However, the health agency is unclear about its transmissibility, whether it causes an increased infectivity or severity, she said.
Responding to whether the unvaccinated majority would be at risk of illness or missing work, Ms Hopkins added: ‘Some of them will be off work but many won’t because many people now have very mild, asymptomatic illness and don’t even know they have it.
‘If we look back over the last year and a half, we’ve had a number of waves of new variants coming in and circulating in the community.
It has not disrupted schools, it has not disrupted the economy.’
Eligible groups will be able to book their jabs from September 18 through the NHS website, the NHS App or by calling 119.
GP surgeries and other local NHS services are also contacting people to offer the vaccines.
Hospital admissions and numbers of beds occupied by Covid patients had also been rising. Latest NHS data shows daily Covid hospital admissions have risen almost 30 per cent since June, with a seven-day rolling average of 322 as of August 25, compared to 251 on June 7
Children aged two to 17 will also be able to have flu vaccinations from next week. The UKHSA is urging parents to fill out the consent forms for the nasal spray vaccine, which is administered at school and via GP surgeries
Latest Covid wastewater sampling data in Scotland also shows it has hit its highest level in over a year at 167 mgc/p/d. It last rose to this figure in June 2022
Vaccine programmes have already kicked off in Scotland, while Wales will roll out at the same time as England, and Northern Ireland officially starts its programme on September 18.
NHS England is urging people to get both jabs to avoid a potential ‘twindemic’ of flu and Covid, which would put pressure on the health service.
NHS director of vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said today: ‘The NHS flu and Covid vaccination programmes have been very effective in protecting those at greatest risk and we will work at speed to ensure they are protected once again this year, starting with care homes and those who are housebound today.
‘With concerns arising over new Covid variants, it’s vital we adapt the programme and bring it forward for those most at risk, and so I strongly urge everyone eligible to come forward as soon as they can for this important protection in colder months.
‘NHS staff have worked hard to ensure services are ready for patients to get jabbed at an earlier stage so they can get their protection as soon as possible.’
Read more: UK Pirola cases jump to 36: Covid variant infects nearly entire care home with health chiefs fearing outbreak is ‘early indicator’ that strain is super transmissible
But in August the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which guides ministers on jab rollouts, published its updated advice setting out who will be eligible for a Covid booster.
In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites will no longer be dished out to millions aged 50-64, who were eligible during the pandemic.
At the time scientists labelled the move ‘troubling’ and ‘short-sighted’, warning cases could again shoot up.
In total, five people with confirmed Pirola infections have so far required hospitalisation, though UKHSA analysts last week said no deaths have been recorded.
Experts have also told MailOnline the data suggests that the Omicron sub-variant is more transmissible than its predecessors but that it is no more severe.
UKHSA said it was notified about the care home outbreak on August 21.
All residents and staff took PCR Covid tests which were sent to labs for analysis.
Results showed that 87 per cent of residents were infected, whilst 12 staff also tested positive.
It comes as officials also confirmed last month that Covid testing and community surveillance is set to be ‘scaled up’ ahead of this winter.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, said: ‘Older people and those in clinical risk groups remain at highest risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
‘The vaccine continues to provide the best protection against serious illness and hospitalisation from Covid, so please make sure you get vaccinated when offered and encourage loved ones who are eligible to do the same.’
Children aged two to 17 will also be able to have flu vaccinations from next week.
The UKHSA is urging parents to fill out the consent forms for the nasal spray vaccine, which is administered at school and via GP surgeries.
UK scientists were first alerted to Pirola on August 14, with concerns immediately triggered due to its large number of mutations.
The UKHSA officially classified it as a variant on August 18 after the first UK case was detected in a hospitalised patient in London.
However, experts believe many more are infected.
Brits are no longer testing en masse like they were earlier in the pandemic — with free community mass testing ending in May 2022.
It means fewer cases are being detected and sequenced — a process which reveals the variant behind an infection.
But virologists have warned it is too early to pinpoint whether BA.2.86 triggers more severe illness than earlier versions of the virus, as scientists are still analysing recently discovered cases.
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert based at University College London told MailOnline: ‘Based on the tiny number of BA.2.86 cases diagnosed to date there is no evidence for, but also no reason to expect, a significant shift in symptoms.’
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said that a combination of immunity induced by previous infections, Covid vaccinations and ‘a combination of changes in the virus’ has seen Covid symptoms alter over the last three years.
‘It’s much more like a cold now than when we first experienced Covid,’ he said.
Early results from a US lab earlier this week suggested Pirola may not be as dangerous as initially feared.
The research, published by the Dan Barouch Lab, part of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard University School of Medicine, analysed how well the immune system of the 66 participants fought-off 10 Omicron subvariants, including BA.2.86.
They found that antibodies — proteins that protect against infection — were less effective against Pirola than its ancestor BA.2.
However, when compared to other Omicron variants currently circulating, the results were similar, suggesting Pirola is no better at dodging immunity.
While this won’t stop people from catching the virus, it suggests the UK’s wall of immunity — built up from waves of infection and vaccine rollouts — should help prevent a dramatic spike in people from becoming severely ill.
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