UK Pirola cases jump to 34 after it infects nearly entire care home

UK Pirola cases jump to 36: Covid variant infects nearly entire care home with health chiefs fearing outbreak is ‘early indicator’ that strain is super transmissible

  • More than 30 UK Pirola cases have now been recorded, up from just 3 last week
  • READ MORE: Study suggests BA.2.86 may not be as dangerous as first feared 

More than 30 cases of the Pirola Covid variant have been spotted in the UK, health chiefs revealed today.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed that 36 cases of the strain, scientifically known as BA.2.86, have been spotted, up from just three a week ago. 

Two are in Scotland while 34 are in England. 

Of the cases in England, 28 came from a single outbreak in a care home in Norfolk, which infected 87 per cent of residents and left one hospitalised.

Health chiefs said this signals a ‘high attack rate’ and could be an early indicator that the strain spreads easily indoors. 

While virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint BA.2.86 specific symptoms, its ancestor BA.2 had some tell-tale signs. Experts aren’t yet certain, however if it behaves like similar Omicron subvariants, the signs to watch out for include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue

Hospital admissions and numbers of beds occupied by Covid patients had also been rising. Latest NHS data shows daily Covid hospital admissions have risen almost 30 per cent since June, with a seven-day rolling average of 322 as of August 25, compared to 251 on June 7

This UKHSA graphic shows the number of Pirola cases by date the test containing the infected sample was received, cases surged on August 26 shortly after the start of the care home outbreak 

In total, five people with confirmed Pirola infections have so far required hospitalisation, though UKHSA analysts said no deaths have been recorded.

Experts told MailOnline the data suggests that the Omicron sub-variant is more transmissible than its predecessors but that it is no more severe.

UKHSA said it was notified about the care home outbreak on August 21.

All residents and staff took PCR Covid tests which were sent to labs for analysis.

Results showed that 87 per cent of residents were infected, whilst 12 staff also tested positive. 

Global cases of the Pirola have doubled in the last week and has now been detected in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa , Portugal, Sweden, France, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland. Health experts fear it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected

One resident was hospitalised and four remain unwell. 

Health chiefs are spooked over the variant’s high number of mutations.

These signal that the variant could potentially be more infectious or be different genetically enough from previous variants that the protection offered by jabs or prior infection is significantly reduced. 

But the UKHSA said it will be ‘some time’ before it knows how quickly the variant is spreading, how effective it is at making people ill and how good it is at dodging immunity from jabs or previous infections. 

Dr Renu Bindra, UKHSA incident director, said the agency is working with scientists around the globe to study the strain.

The agency is advising Norfolk County Council on its outbreak to curb the spread of the infection, she said.

Dr Bindra urged people to come forward for Covid vaccine drive, which was recently accelerated to launch on Monday due to fears surrounding Pirola. 

‘It remains vital that all those eligible come forward to receive their autumn vaccine as soon as it is offered to them,’ she said.

Reacting to the UKHSA report Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘It does indicate that the general trend we have seen since variants arose, towards transmissibility rather than pathology, is holding and that we can reasonably expect the same to be true of the variants to come.’ 

Professor Paul Hunter, a respected infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia, also told MailOnline that while ‘early days’ the fact only one person in the care home outbreak required hospitalisation ‘doesn’t raise any red flags’.

Apart from the care home outbreak, all the other Pirola cases are unlinked, suggesting Pirola is spreading in the community, the UKHSA said.

Read more: How dangerous is Pirola really? What should we be doing this winter? And could we even see another lockdown? Experts weigh-in on the new ‘real deal’ Covid variant

The agency’s Pirola cases only reflect a fraction of the true toll. 

Brits are no longer testing en masse like they were earlier in the pandemic — with community mass testing ending in May 2022.

Therefor it is unclear how many Brits are infected with Covid and how many of those have Pirola.  

While only two cases have been confirmed in Scotland, more are suspected. Traces of the variant being found in wastewater analysis by Scottish authorities. 

No Pirola cases have been detected in Wales or Northern Ireland. 

While the prevalence of the virus is unclear, data from the ZOE Covid study, which tracks self-reported infections, suggests there were 100,516 new cases of symptomatic infection on September 6 — double the 50,000 it reported at the start of August.

The study, which is based on data from millions of users of the ZOE app, estimates around 1.2million in the UK are currently infected, roughly one in 57 people. 

The figure is the highest for five months but it is still far lower than the estimated toll during earlier peaks, with it reporting that 3.8million people were infected in April 2022.

Experts predict Covid cases will continue to rise as the UK heads into the autumn, as people mix more indoors.

This could exacerbate NHS pressures, with the season traditionally a busier period for the health service than summer. 

The UKHSA’s report today also included an analysis of the Pirola cases which have undergone genetic trusting.

Results suggests several slightly different Pirola strains have entered Britain multiple times from overseas, rather than in one singular superspreader case.

Tests include whether the closely related ‘Kraken’ variant — which arrived in the UK in the first half of 2023 — offers some protection from Pirola.

They are also analysing how accurate the current generation of lateral-flow-tests are at detecting a Pirola infection.

UKHSA is also working with other British scientists on determining how fast Priola could spread and how effective the current batch of Covid jabs are against the heavily mutated variant. 

Latest Covid wastewater sampling data in Scotland also shows it has hit its highest level in over a year at 167 mgc/p/d. It last rose to this figure in June 2022

Office of National Statistics data released last month 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

Globally, the variant has been spotted in more than dozen countries, including the US, Denmark, South Africa, Portugal, Sweden, Canada, France and Switzerland.

The variant’s meteoric rise on the global stage and its host of over 35 mutations has sparked alarm among scientists.

Such concerns prompted the Department of Health and Social Care to accelerate the autumn Covid and flu jab drive.

Annual vaccinations for care home residents and vulnerable adults, who are at most risk of a severe infection, were due to start in October.

READ MORE: New Covid variant symptoms: Is BA.2.86 any different to previous strains? 

However, they will now start from Monday in a bid to boost protection earlier in the year amid fears that Pirola could trigger a fresh wave.

Ministers said they had made the decision to reduce pressure on the health service while scientists rush to learn more about the variant.

But virologists have warned it is too early to pinpoint whether BA.2.86 triggers more severe illness than earlier versions of the virus, as scientists are still analysing recently discovered cases.

Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert based at University College London told MailOnline: ‘Based on the tiny number of BA.2.86 cases diagnosed to date there is no evidence for, but also no reason to expect, a significant shift in symptoms.’

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said that a combination of immunity induced by previous infections, Covid vaccinations and ‘a combination of changes in the virus’ has seen Covid symptoms alter over the last three years. 

‘It’s much more like a cold now than when we first experienced Covid,’ he said.

Early results from a US lab earlier this week suggested Pirola may not be as dangerous as initially feared.

The research, published by the Dan Barouch Lab, part of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard University School of Medicine, analysed how well the immune system of the 66 participants fought-off 10 Omicron subvariants, including BA.2.86. 

They found that antibodies — proteins that protect against infection — were less effective against Pirola than its ancestor BA.2.

However, when compared to other Omicron variants currently circulating, the results were similar, suggesting Pirola is no better at dodging immunity.

While this won’t stop people from catching the virus, it suggests the UK’s wall of immunity — built up from waves of infection and vaccine rollouts — should help prevent a dramatic spike in people from becoming severely ill.

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