After two winters of covid pain, one would be forgiven if one saw the shortness of days with a sense of fear. It will not be completely misplaced.
According to data from National Statistics Office (ONS), about one in 70 people in the community in England – an estimated 766,500 people – had Covid in the week ending September 14, up from 705,800 people, or one in 75, the week before.
This is the first time since late July that an increase has been seen in England. There was also an uptick in Wales, although infection levels fell slightly in Northern Ireland and Scotland in the last week, after the latter showed a rise the previous week.
An increase in cases was also noted in the UK data collected by Zoe’s Health Studywhile the Latest NHS numbers It showed a 17% increase in the number of Covid patients admitted to hospitals in England – from 3,434 in the week ending 12 September to 4,015 in the week ending 19 September – with the percentage rising even larger in some areas.
Should Covid take off again, the outlook is going to be a bumpy ride. “With cases already on the rise, it looks like we’re in a bad October and potentially worse than the last wave,” said Professor Tim Spector, Zoe’s scientific founder.
a The wave of Covid this fall was expected. Weakened immunity from previous vaccinations and infections, increased mixing indoors, decreased testing, children returning to school and students back to university, and other shifts in behaviors can all lead to higher rates of infection.
There are also new variants. While Omicron has dominated the UK since last winter, it has many “daughter” forms. The BA.5 subvariable is the most common, but experts have their eyes on others including BA4.6, BF.7, BA.2.75.2, and BQ.1.1.
As Dr Thomas Peacock, from Imperial College London, points out, recent data suggest the latter two account for less than 0.5% of the UK’s Covid virus genetic sequences – but they are growing rapidly. “It is entirely possible that the fall/winter wave was driven by a mixture of variables,” Peacock said.
Professor Tom Winsellers, an evolutionary biologist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, said that BA.2.75.2 and BQ1.1 have mutations in the spike protein that help them escape in part from immunity caused by BA.5.
“Combined with the fact that hospital admissions for Covid have already started to rise again in the UK, and that the full impact of these variables remains imperceptible, I would say this is not great news,” he said.
What is not known is the effect of these variables on disease severity, although Peacock notes that there are currently no indications that they cause worse disease. And deaths related to Covid remain low.
Wensleers said: “Most scientists believe that our high population immunity will cause the infection fatality rate to continue to decline. But any new wave of infection will, of course, increase the losses of the epidemic.”
But deaths are not the only concern. “Even a small wave will put a tremendous additional pressure on health services, especially if combined with other respiratory viruses that will return this winter” such as influenza, Peacock said.
Experts agree that vaccines are essential in treating Covid. “I can only recommend everyone who is offered a booster to go and get one: this is the best way to protect themselves from severe disease, and to limit the impact of any new wave,” Wenseleers said.
Dr Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern and the University of Geneva, said studies suggest that the new double-booster Covid shots available in the UK and other countries may increase protection against Covid, while Dr David Strain, of the University of Exeter Medical School said vaccination could increase protection against Covid-19. It can also reduce the chance of developing long-term Covid.
But there are concerns about uptake. “We get a whole bunch of vaccine stress — people are just tired of being told to go and get their vaccine,” Strin said.
Hodcroft said a new wave of Covid is also forcing the potential to disrupt education, transportation, delivery and other infrastructure, raising the question of whether more measures, such as masking or working at home, are also needed.
“Overall, I think the most important thing right now is to look carefully at our plans for fall and make sure we have a plan,” she said.