Scientists are calling on the new government to closely monitor Covid levels throughout the year – rather than just during winter – after a summer wave of cases has led to a new dominant FLiRT variant.

At the moment, Covid levels are only measured in the general population from mid-November to mid-March, for the winter infection survey.

For the rest of the year, the true number of infections is far less clear as data is confined to those who are hospitalised and people with symptoms who test positive at hospitals and GPs.

These cases give a basic indication of trends but are a very “rough and ready” measure that is subject to significant uncertainty, scientists say.

Monitoring Covid closely throughout the year – such as the summer wave the UK is currently experiencing – would help keep a lid on waves of infections outside of winter. Constant monitoring could also help to alert people to the scale of infections so they can take steps to protect themselves, they argue.

This would, in turn, reduce the risk of a nasty new variant emerging as the higher the number of infections the more the risk of one developing.

The need for year-round monitoring has been further underlined by the emergence of a new dominant variant – known as KP.3 – in the UK, which belongs to a group known as the FLiRT variants.

It accounted for 64 per cent of infections on June 30 and has driven the summer wave – demonstrating that Covid has not settled down as a seasonal virus in the way that flu and rhinovirus (the main cause of the common cold) have.

In fact, the number of infections a year ago were a fraction of what they are today – showing just how unpredictable Covid has become, scientists say.

“Because Covid continues to be a threat and the virus is constantly changing, we need more robust year-round community testing,” Warwick University virologist Professor Lawrence Young told i.

“Currently we are blind to the spread of the virus in the general population and there are no control measures to mitigate against infection.

“This is particularly dangerous as we head towards the autumn and winter months as it is likely to lead to more widespread infection with serious consequences for the elderly and most vulnerable.”

He added: “It also means that the virus will continue to change as it spreads, throwing up new variants that could be more infectious and more able to evade immunity from past infections and vaccination.”

Professor Steve Griffin, of Leeds University, said: “It’s clear that Covid continues to circulate at relatively high levels in the UK. However, it can be difficult to determine the extent of such prevalence as healthcare testing has a bias compared to random testing.”

He would like to see England and Wales following Scotland’s lead and analyse wastewater, which can give valuable clues about infection levels in the population.

Professor Christina Pagel of University College of London would also like to see England analysing wastewater.

“England is short on Covid data. This is extremely irritating, especially when we are in the middle of a significant Covid wave. It means we can’t say anything for sure but are forced to search for clues in the sparse and imperfect data that remains.

“It is also self-evident that Covid is in no way a winter respiratory bug – its behaviour is nothing like flu or RSV, the other main respiratory viruses that can cause severe illness and do every winter. While flu and RSV (rhinovirus) are pretty much confined to November to March, Covid waves can and do happen at any time of year. We are still in three to four waves a year, each causing some disruption to people’s lives, employment and the NHS”.

“Restarting wastewater monitoring would be extremely helpful for giving us early warning of issues,” she said.

Simon Williams, of Swansea University, said: “Covid may have been around for more than four years, but in the grand scheme of things it is still a new virus and there are many things we are still learning about it and that we still don’t know about it.

“It is wrong to make comparisons between Covid and the flu, and to say that it is just like the common cold. For one, as the summer wave in the UK and many countries has shown, Covid is not seasonal, it is currently an unpredictable and year-round virus, and so it is much harder to predict and plan for compared to say seasonal flu.

“Better, year-round, surveillance in a number of ways would help us better understand and therefore reduce Covid’s impact. For example, better prevalence monitoring – that is looking at numbers of cases – as well as wastewater analysis, would help us keep on top of Covid, including knowing when a new wave is coming,” he said.

The Department of Health and the UK Health Security Agency were approached for comment.

2024-07-09T05:14:46Z dg43tfdfdgfd