Covid: UK must start preparing for ‘worse scenario’ variant warns professor – symptoms

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Life in the UK may seem normal again but the pandemic has left the country in an uncanny valley. Most visible is the shift to working from home, which is profoundly changing travel patterns and retail footfall. However, it’s not just the economic outlook that’s looking precarious.

Despite cases of Covid falling to their lowest levels in a year, the emergence of a new variant that sets back progress is entirely plausible.

That’s the grim assessment of Professor Denis Kinane, Immunologist and Founding Scientist at Cignpost Diagnostics.

“It is important to understand the virus will continue to mutate and new variants will inevitably emerge, some of which may have enhanced severity,” Prof Kinane explained to

He continued: “However, the severity of disease caused is not simply due to the virus but also depends on our immunity.

“Currently a high proportion of our population has experienced natural infections and we have high vaccine coverage.”

As the professor pointed out, “we are likely to need more booster jabs in future as this immunity wanes, especially for the medically vulnerable”.

This may not be enough to stem the tide of rising cases, he warned.

“The worst scenario would be a new variant appearing that is both more virulent and capable of evading our immune system due to excessive mutation.”

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According to Prof Kinane, this is not an “impossible scenario” given that China, with a population of 1.5 billion, will now be a breeding ground and mutation chamber for the virus as they struggle to contain the spread of Omicron.

“Clearly, the UK needs to retain testing and sequencing capacity to safeguard ourselves,” he said.

UK latest

Over the last six months, sublineages of the Omicron strain have been spreading in the UK.

The increased transmissibility of sublineage BA.2 meant it superseded the original strain – BA.1.

“It is highly likely that BA.4 and BA.5 will become the dominant strains in the UK,” said Prof Kinane.

He continued: “Although the overall proportion of these two new forms is currently low, the high transmissibility reported in South Africa indicates that these strains could become dominant in the UK in the coming weeks.”

With Covid restrictions removed, waning immunity from vaccination and low levels of public testing, the professor said the number of Covid cases could rise again.

“That being said, it is important to remember that vaccination immunity and natural immunity following infection with previous variants is high in the UK at the moment but will begin to wane without additional boosters.”

Do the symptoms differ between the sublineages of Omicron?

Professor Kinane said: “So far, there has been no indication that BA.4 or BA.5 are associated with new symptoms or more severe disease.”

Therefore, “the signs to look out for are the typical Omicron symptoms, which include fever, cough, loss of smell, fatigue and malaise”, he said.

“This is to be expected, given that the majority of mutations are similar to those found in other Omicron subvariants.”

Some symptoms have become less prevalent as Covid has mutated.

According to Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the ZOE Covid Study app and Professor of Epidemiology at King’s College London, loss of smell was more associated with previous strains.

Symptoms will be closely monitored by the WHO and health bodies in countries where BA.4 or BA.5 are being picked up, added Professor Kinane.

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