The Covid-19 vaccination programme should be expanded to allow anyone, regardless of age, to receive the vaccine, an academic has said.
The vaccine programme should resemble the flu programme, according to Professor Devi Sridhar, chairwoman of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, so that people can receive vaccinations privately if they so choose.
Currently, it is not possible to purchase Covid-19 injections in the UK, and the official vaccination programme - which has already been brought forward due to fears over a new variant - only allows those over 65 and those who are clinically at risk, to receive vaccinations.
That new variant, known as BA.2.86 and first identified in the UK on 18 August, has not been classified as a “variant of concern” but scientists have said that it carries a high number of mutations and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is watching it closely.
And NHS officials have said it represents the most concerning new variant since Omicron first emerged. Here is everything you need to know about it.
What is the new Covid variant?
Variant BA.2.86, also known as Pirola, was first detected in Denmark on 24 July, and was also found in that country on 31 July, the same day it was discovered in Israel. A case in the US was then detected in August.
On the new variant, Prof Sridhar told Sky News: “It’s still a sub lineage of Omicron and so in that sense, we’re still in the Omicron age, but I think here what you’re seeing is its ability to reinfect those who have already had a previous version of Omicron as well as how transmissible it is, and so those are the concerns."
At the end of August, an outbreak at a care home in Norfolk suggested the variant may be transmissible enough to have an impact in settings where people are in close contact.
33 out of 38 residents tested positive for the virus, along with 12 members of staff, according to the UKHSA; laboratory tests later showed that 22 residents had the BA.2.86 variant, along with six members of staff.
“But I would say that early studies are showing that it is not more severe in terms of its health impact," Prof Sridhar added, "and also that it’s not having a higher hospitalisation rate, and those are the two things that we’re watching carefully in terms of future variants."
While experts are optimistic that the vaccine programme will offer some protection, some have said that “we don’t know yet” whether it will provide enough protection in all instances. Its many mutations may mean it can evade the jab, and some experts have called for people to begin wearing a mask again.
The UKHSA said there is “insufficient data” to assess the new strain’s relative severity or how likely it is to evade the protection offered by vaccines compared to other currently-circulating variants.
The agency said it would continue to monitor the spread of the variant closely while checks to determine the risks it may pose continue.
Covid 19 Pirola variant symptoms
Symptoms of the BA.2.86 variant closely resemble what we have come to expect with Covid-19 infections over the past three years, and include a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and a sore throat.
What does 'Pirola' mean?
The nickname of the new variant appears to have been suggested by @JPWeiland, a self-described scientist and infectious disease modeller, on Twitter, and is a compound of Pi and Rho, which follow Omicron in the Greek alphabet.
He explained that, as well as the next logical name after Omicron, he named it Pirola “after an asteroid that hangs out by Jupiter”.
Will there be another lockdown?
The latest coronavirus strain is unlikely to cause a fresh wave of severe disease and deaths, or prompt fresh restrictions on people’s daily lives, because most people have some immunity to the illness.
Francois Balloux, Professor of computational systems biology and director of the UCL Genetics Institute at University College London, said: Even in the worst-case scenario where BA.2.86 caused a major new wave of cases, we are not expecting to witness comparable levels of severe disease and death than we did earlier in the pandemic when the Alpha, Delta or Omicron variants spread.
“Most people on Earth have now been vaccinated and/or infected by the virus. Even if people get reinfected by BA.2.86, immune memory will still allow their immune system to kick in and control the infection far more effectively.
Covid jabs autumn 2023
Vaccinations in England and Wales will start on Monday 11 September following advice from the UKHSA, which said that speeding up the autumn vaccine programme will deliver greater protection, particularly for those with the greatest risk of severe illness.
This could also reduce any potential impact on the NHS, and people have been urged to take up the offer of the vaccines as soon as they are invited to come forward.
Currently, only over 65s and people who are clinically at risk are able to get a vaccine through the official vaccination programme. Covid-19 jabs are not available to buy in the UK.
Vaccine programmes have already kicked off in Scotland, and Northern Ireland officially starts its programme on Monday 18 September.
People will be contacted by their local GP offices or other NHS organisations to be offered the immunisations.