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Worrying New Variant Summer Covid Wave

A summer Covid wave is growing and it's fuelled by a new variant.

Rates are highest in the most elderly as the “FLiRT”- Fresh Lineage of Rapid Transmission - variants take hold and hospital rates suggest infections are on the rise. The number of people hospitalised with Covid was 3.31 per 100,000 in the week ending June 16, up from 2.67 the week before, and was even higher among the elderly, peaking at 34.70 in the over-85s.

Prof Steve Griffin of Leeds University said: “This is clearly early days, but it certainly looks as though yet another Covid wave is building. If the rise in hospitalisations continues, this is obviously worrying.”

There are fears Covid rates could spread down through the age groups before being boosted by indoor gatherings of people watching the football European Championships and at summer music festivals. Latest data shows 146 people died with Covid-19 on their death certificate in the week up to June 14. This compares to almost 1,000 a week at the height of the pandemic.

Leading infectious disease expert Prof Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said: “To be honest, you can’t really avoid it because it’s so common. We are all of us going to get repeated Covid infections from birth through to death.

“Generally what we’ve seen is that over the last three years, four years, the severity of illness associated with Covid has gone down a lot. Ultimately, it’s going to become another cause of the common cold and, for many people, that’s what it is now.” It comes after NHS England last week launched a final appeal for people to take up the offer of a Spring booster jab with only just over half of those eligible having done so. Sunday was the final day eligible groups could get one.

Infection rates are hard to estimate since widespread testing was axed, but hospital admissions indicate a summer wave was underway by mid-June after the number of cases rose by a quarter in a single week. There was also a 29% in positive cases in the week to June 22, although the majority of testing is now in hospital and healthcare settings.

The main FLiRT variants are known as KP.2 and KP.3, and accounted for a combined 40% of Covid in April. They have a number of new mutations. Prof Griffin added: “Although we’ve just had a spring booster campaign for vulnerable populations, the uptake was lower than in 2023. There is a considerable difference between the current vaccines and circulating viruses.”

The “Flirt” name derives from the technical names for the variant’s spike protein mutations or amino acid changes. Each amino acid has its own letter abbreviation. Flirt is F456L + R346T, or phenylalanine (F) to leucine (L) at position 456 and arginine (R) to threonine (T) at position 346. Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, consultant epidemiologist for immunisation at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), previously said it was “seeing an increase in Covid- 19 across all indicators, including hospitalisations”.

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