Covid jab rollout brought forward over fears ofPirola variant

Covid and flu jab autumn rollouts brought forward: Vaccines to be deployed in less than a fortnight over fears Pirola variant will overwhelm NHS

  • The were originally planned to be dished out to vulnerable people in October 
  • READ MORE: Surge in Covid deaths this year as fatalities jumps 57% in a week 

England’s annual flu and Covid vaccine drive is being brought forward due to fears the heavily-mutated Pirola variant will trigger a fresh wave and overwhelm the NHS.

The Department of Health and Social Care announced vaccinations for care home residents and vulnerable adults will now start earlier than scheduled.

GPs and pharmacies will begin dishing out the jabs from September 11, a full month earlier than originally planned.

The ‘precautionary’ move comes amid fears over the spread of the mutated Pirola variant of Covid, technically called BA.2.86. Health chiefs today confirmed a second Brit has been infected with the strain.

Ministers said they had made the decision to reduce pressure on the health service while scientists rush to learn more about Pirola, described as a ‘real deal’ and the ‘most striking’ that the world has seen since Omicron first emerged.

Office of National Statistics data released today shows there were 74 Covid deaths registered across the two countries in the week ending August 11. This was a 57 per cent rise on the 47 logged in the previous seven-day spell. But for comparison, this is just a fraction of January’s toll, when cases soared to pandemic highs and deaths peaked at 654

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

Announcing the move, Health Minister Maria Caulfield said: ‘As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination programme.

‘It is absolutely vital the most vulnerable groups receive a vaccine to strengthen their immunity over winter to protect themselves and reduce pressure on the NHS.

‘I encourage anyone invited for a vaccination – including those yet to have their first jab – to come forward as soon as possible.’

Bringing the jab rollout forward was based on advice from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) that speeding up the rollout would offer people greater protection from the becoming severely ill from virus.

This, the agency claimed, would have the added benefit of reducing pressure on the NHS. 

READ MORE: Biggest surge in Covid deaths this year: Number dying due to virus jumps 57% in a week – with experts already calling call for return of masks

UKHSA chief executive of the Dame Jenny Harries said: ‘Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population.

‘However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from Covid.

‘This precautionary measure to bring forward the autumn programme will ensure these people have protection against any potential wave this winter.’

Dame Jenny added that the agency was continuing to evaluate Pirola.

‘There is limited information available at present on BA.2.86 so the potential impact of this particular variant is difficult to estimate. 

‘As with all emergent and circulating Covid-19 variants – both in the UK and internationally – we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more. 

‘In the meantime, please come forward for the vaccine when you are called.’

Pirola’s arrival comes as Covid cases take off once again, sparking concerns that the UK is on the brink of another wave just as the country heads into the winter when the NHS is busiest. NHS hospital data shows daily Covid admissions in England have increased on average by almost a fifth in week, rising from a seven-day rolling average of 258 on August 4, to 308 on August 11

Health authorities in the UK have encouraged people to take vaccines when they are called

NHS officials said they would work quickly ‘to ensure as many eligible people as possible are vaccinated by the end of October’ to prepare for a challenging winter.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said: ‘Vaccinations are our best defence against flu and Covid-19 ahead of what could be a very challenging winter, and with the potential for this new Covid variant to increase the risk of infection, we are following the latest expert guidance and bringing the Covid vaccination programme forward, with people able to get their flu vaccine at the same time to maximise protection.’

NHS director of vaccinations and screening, Steve Russell, said: ‘While we know that flu and Covid usually hit hardest in December and January, the new Covid variant presents a greater risk now, which is why we will be ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated against Covid sooner.’

While the Covid is the focus in the change of timeline for the jab rollout, officials will also dish out the flu jab early for ‘operational expediency’. 

READ MORE: Pirola Covid variant spreads to two more countries, as global confirmed detections double in a week 

Care home residents are being prioritised in the rollout but other groups, as well as the clinically vulnerable, those aged 65 and over, health and social care staff and carers are also expected to be called forward for jabs in September. 

England is, so far, the only UK nation to announce a change in its autumn vaccination programme.

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 and concern continued to grow across the globe about its spread.

Officials today confirmed that a second case had been confirmed as of August 28. No further details were provided about the person. It is unclear what part of the country they are in or whether they have been hospitalised.

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. 

Fresh data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows there were 74 coronavirus deaths recorded across England and Wales in the week to August 11.

It marks a 57.4 per cent increase on the previous week when just 47 Covid deaths were logged — signalling the biggest surge in virus fatalities this year.

The heavily-mutated Covid variant dubbed the ‘real deal’ has been detected in four new cases in Sweden, health experts have confirmed, amid fears it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected. The strain has also been logged in Canada, officials in the country revealed, taking the total number of cases reported globally up to 24, doubling in just a week

Scientists today warned that the uptick in deaths could signal that a new variant is spreading.

They also called for a return of pandemic mitigation measures, including mask wearing, and increased ventilation because of the virus’ resurgence. 

While the weekly surge in deaths is the biggest logged this year, the number dying due to the virus is still a fraction of the death toll earlier in the year.

For comparison, weekly deaths caused by the virus spiked at 654 in January.

These ONS figures only include fatalities when Covid was the main cause of death.

In the most recent week, there were 108 deaths involving the virus up 58.8 per cent from 68 one week earlier.

However, this toll includes cases where Covid or suspected Covid was mentioned on a person’s death certificate, including in combination with other health conditions. 

Trends in Covid deaths lag two weeks behind infection levels, given how long it takes for the infected to become seriously ill.

Global cases of Pirola have doubled in a week, having now been spotted in Sweden and Canada for the first time. 

Pirola, a descendant of the Omicron variant, was first detected in Israel and Denmark earlier this month.

It has since been spotted in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa, Portugal, Thailand and Switzerland.

The spread has unsettled a swathe of top scientists who are worried that its catalogue of mutations could see it spark another wave of cases. 

Experts have also warned that the true scale of Pirola’s spread is unclear, as the world has scaled back of variant tracking capabilities from the height of the pandemic.

Other scientists have cautioned that it is too early to panic about the new variant.

There is currently no evidence that Pirola is any more of a threat than the dozens of strains that have come before it.

Pirola has not yet been observed to make people more seriously ill than other Omicron-descendant variants or having any enhanced ability to dodge the immunity protection offered from current vaccines or prior infection. 

What is the new variant? How dangerous is it? And is it more infectious than other Covid strains? What we know so far about Pirola

What is the strain?

The spin-off strain has been nicknamed Pirola but is also known scientifically as BA.X/BA.2.86. 

One epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, tasked with tracking viral threats like Covid, said last week that the variant could be dubbed ‘Pi’, the letter which follows Omicron in the Greek alphabet – the system officials use to name new strains. 

Viruses constantly change through mutation and sometimes these mutations result in new variants.

Where has it been spotted? 

Alarm bells over Pirola were first rung earlier this month after a prominent online virus-tracker spotted cases initially crop up in Denmark. 

The discovery came just a day after the same lineage was detected in Israel. 

On August 17, the CDC also confirmed a fourth case had been detected in Michigan. 

On August 18, the UKHSA revealed a single case of BA.2.86 had been detected in the UK. 

Denmark also logged another case on August 18, its public health institute, the Statens Serum Institut, confirmed. 

The three Danish cases ‘are from different parts of the country, and do not appear to have had contact with each other’, it said, indicating community transmission. 

Another case in Virginia was logged on August 22, after the patient travelled into the US from Japan. 

Two additional cases in South Africa were also detected on August 23. Further detections have reportedly also been discovered via wastewater samples in Switzerland and Thailand. 

This means the strain has now been detected in four separate continents. 

The variant also follows the arrival of another strain, nicknamed Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1. 

Why has it sparked concern?

Pirola was originally highlighted by Shay Fleishon, a former advisor to the Central Virology Laboratory at Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv. 

It was later flagged by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’. 

At the time, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent SAGE, said: ‘To everyone else very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in 2 countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’ 

Experts believe the variant has over 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.

Some scientists have already called for the return of face masks and a change to Covid vaccine eligibility in the UK because of the spin-off variant. 

However, others have warned that it is too early to panic and that lockdowns or other pandemic-era restrictions won’t be needed. 

In Denmark, the Statens Serum Institute said it was testing the virus to assess whether it poses a threat.

But, it stressed there is currently no evidence that Pirola causes more severe illness. 

How deadly are the symptoms?

A rise in cases could put health services under pressure.

Typically Covid symptoms are known to include a high fever, cough, cold and loss of the sense of taste or smell. 

However, there are no signs yet the newly discovered variant, which is different to Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1, poses any more of a danger than others, including its ancestor Omicron. 

Do the vaccines still work? 

It is still unclear whether the new variant has any increased ability to evade protection from vaccines compared to other Omicron spin-offs. 

Even if the vaccines do not work perfectly against the variant, immunity is likely to still hold up, with most Brits also having been exposed to former Omicron variants.

High levels of protection against the virus gave ministers in the UK the confidence to ditch all Covid measures last year as the country moved to living with the virus.

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