Some pharmacies have already run out of Covid tests, as experts urge Brits to stay alert to the new heavily-mutated Pirola Covid variant amid fears it could trigger a fresh wave of infections and overwhelm the NHS.
It comes less than 24 hours after health officials u-turned again on the autumn Covid and flu jab drive start date, bringing it forwards from October to September 11, with some experts already calling to ‘vaccinate everyone’.
Ministers said the rollout would to help reduce potential pressure on the health service from a fresh wave of Covid cases as scientists rush to learn more about the Pirola, dubbed by some experts as the ‘real deal’ next strain of the virus.
But pharmacy and GP leaders today slammed the last minute change, labelling it ‘utter chaos’, and warned that health professionals had been left unprepared and the workforce would now be ‘stretched beyond capacity’.
And in another sign the authorities are taking Pirola, known scientifically as BA.2.86, more seriously, health officials today also confirmed Covid testing and community surveillance would be ‘scaled up’ ahead of this winter.
Pirola’s arrival comes as Covid cases take off once again, sparking concerns that the UK is on the brink of another wave just as the country heads into the winter when the NHS is busiest. NHS hospital data shows daily Covid admissions in England have increased on average by almost a fifth in week, rising from a seven-day rolling average of 258 on August 4, to 308 on August 11
Covid and flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic
Some pharmacies in London are reported to have completely run out of lateral flow tests as demand surged and are unsure when stocks will be replenished.
One shopper who was looking for tests in Boots, Marylebone, was met with empty shelves.
They told MailOnline: ‘I was told there are none left in stock and the staff said they had no idea when they were getting any more in because there are supply issues.’
MailOnline has approached Boots for comment.
But experts warned that Covid surveillance and sequencing remains limited and urged Brits today to continue testing for the virus if they begin displaying symptoms.
Virologists have cautioned it is too early to reliably pinpoint BA.2.86 specific symptoms.
Experts believe Pirola is derived from the Omicron subvariant BA.2 which stopped circulating around July 2022.
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, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland. Health experts fear it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected
The variant has not yet been observed to make people more seriously ill than other Omicron-descendant variants or having any enhanced ability to dodge the immunity protection offered from current vaccines or prior infection.
But typically symptoms of BA.2 are known to include a high fever, cough, runny nose, fatigue and loss of the sense of taste or smell.
Officials from Michigan’s health department, where the first case of the variant in the US was logged, said the ‘older adult’ had ‘mild symptoms’ and was not hospitalised.
The second US case, detected in Virginia after the patient travelled from Japan, was asymptomatic, according to the metadata submitted by contractors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US national public health agency.
Health officials are spooked by Covid strain, Pirola, that is quickly spreading globally due to its catalogue of mutations.
BA.2.86 carries an array of more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, which is the part of the virus that vaccines were designed to target.
Several have unknown functions but others are thought to help the virus evade the immune system.
Earlier this month, UKHSA advisers admitted the variant was a concern and revealed its ‘rapid appearance’ suggested ‘established international transmission’.
Global cases of the Pirola have doubled in the last week and it has now been detected in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa, Portugal, Sweden, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland.
Other scientists however have cautioned that it is too early to panic about the new variant.
There is currently no evidence that Pirola is any more of a threat than the dozens of strains that have come before it.
But some scientists have called for a return of pandemic mitigation measures, including mask wearing, and increased ventilation because of the virus’ resurgence.
They also urged Ministers to re-consider vaccine eligibility criteria, after the Government ditched plans earlier this month to offer the jabs to under 65s this winter.
Office of National Statistics data released today 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
Officials originally planned to scale back the annual roll-out to only over-65s, despite warnings the ‘short sighted’ move would leave millions vulnerable this winter. But yesterday they also revealed they were gearing up for the immunisation drive to begin in October, a full month later than usual. Pharmacists fear the decision could impact supply by the time the programme kicks off, however
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline: ‘It stresses the need to keep an eye on Covid infections as we enter the autumn and winter.
‘With people returning to work and schools reopening after the summer break, we need to raise awareness of the risks of infection particularly for the most vulnerable.
‘The government should expedite the autumn vaccination campaign and extend this to people below the age of 65.
‘There should also be more public information alerting folk to the fact that Covid has not gone away and that other mitigations — face masks, increased ventilation — will be necessary over the coming months.’
Dr Trisha Greenhalgh, an internationally-renowned expert in primary care, based at the University of Oxford, also tweeted: ‘Might be a good idea to vaccinate everyone.’
In efforts to curb the spread of the variant, the Government yesterday announced the start date for its Covid and flu jab immunisation drive would begin earlier than planned to ‘maximise protection over the winter months’.
Officials originally planned to kick off this autumn’s jab campaign — which has been scaled back massively — as planned in September.
But earlier this month, in an attempt to get more clinics ready to offer the flu jab at the same time as Covid vaccines, it was delayed until October.
In another u-turn however the Government yesterday announced the date would again be brought forwards to September 11.
Pharmacists and GP leaders however warned the last minute ‘chaotic communication’ from health officials had left pharmacists and GPs unprepared.
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told MailOnline the vaccination programme has been utter chaos’.
She said: ‘Everything is last minute without any consideration for the time healthcare professionals need to prepare.’
Dr Hannbeck added that while pharmacists welcomed the change in policy in anticipation of Pirola she slammed the ‘last-minute’ changes.
‘Whilst it is good to see that the start date has been brought forward, the fact remains that things are landing on us the last minute,’ she said.
‘Had the NHS bosses listened to us in the first place we would not have this chaotic way of communication.’
Meanwhile, Professor Azeem Majeed, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London warned that the annual NHS flu vaccination programme ‘can’t be switched on and off like a tap’.
In a tweet, he added: ‘General practices need time to order vaccines, put in place patient appointment and reminder systems, book clinics, and arrange to vaccinate people who are housebound or clinically vulnerable.’
Dr Samira Anane, deputy chair of England’s GP Committee at the British Medical Association, also said family doctors would need more cash to deliver the rollout, warning the workforce would struggle to deliver it.
‘This programme comes as an incredibly demanding piece of work, which will have an impact across general practice, generating significant workload as a result,’ she said.
‘General practice has been the key to the success of the Covid vaccination programme since its inception, but existing pressures on our services have worsened in recent years, making this tight timeframe even more of a challenge for GPs and their teams.
‘We therefore, urge NHS England to provide adequate financial support beyond the end of October to ensure that any practices still needing to provide boosters after this time, can.’
She added: ‘Thankfully, many GP practices had already prepared to deliver the flu vaccination programme in September despite suggestions that NHS England would delay it, so practices are already on-track to deliver this before the end of October and make sure those who are eligible get the protection they need.’
Bringing the jab rollout forward was based on advice from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) that speeding up the rollout would offer people greater protection from the becoming severely ill from virus.
This, the agency claimed, would have the added benefit of reducing pressure on the NHS.
After the campaign was delayed earlier this month, insiders at the time feared pharmacies and GP surgeries may also have to throw away flu jabs.
Pre-ordered stock, which must be booked months in advance of the flu jab rollout, may not be used up in the time available because it could expire, they warned.
Pharmacy leaders at the time also labelled the move ‘irresponsible’ and a ‘total disrespect to the already overstretched healthcare professionals’.
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at Community Pharmacy England, which represents the country’s 11,000 community pharmacies, told MailOnline today that yesterday’s u-turn means ‘time is now incredibly tight’ for pharmacy teams to prepare.
He said: ‘Time is now incredibly tight for pharmacy teams to prepare for the start of the season.
‘Community pharmacies stood ready to support the emergency Covid vaccination programmes during the pandemic and many pharmacies still wish to do so, so long as it makes economic sense, and so long as they can plan properly for it.
‘Pharmacies will once again show their adaptability and do their utmost to help with this newly accelerated campaign, but the policy to-ing and fro-ing that we have seen this year must not be repeated.’
Meanwhile, Malcolm Harrison, Chief Executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), which represents chains such as Boots, LloydsPharmacy and Superdrug, told MailOnline that ‘uncertainty had plagued the programme’.
He added: ‘There is now a need to focus on delivering a successful programme this year.
‘However, given the growing risk to public health, we encourage the government to review again the resource it puts into the vaccination programmes.
‘It is vital that pharmacies and the public are confident in the plans put in place. There is a need to start planning now for the vaccination programme next year, to ensure that maximum uptake and protection can be achieved.’
But Nick Kaye, chair of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) said: ‘The NPA criticised NHS England for its stumbling start to the flu and Covid campaign this year and called for an earlier start, so this announcement that the start date will be brought forward to early September is welcome and should support pharmacies in delivering a successful service.’
Last week, the trade body threatened NHS England with legal action over financial losses caused by the delay to the start of this year’s flu and Covid programme.
NHS officials said yesterday they would work quickly ‘to ensure as many eligible people as possible are vaccinated by the end of October’ to prepare for a challenging winter.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said: ‘Vaccinations are our best defence against flu and Covid ahead of what could be a very challenging winter, and with the potential for this new Covid variant to increase the risk of infection, we are following the latest expert guidance and bringing the Covid vaccination programme forward, with people able to get their flu vaccine at the same time to maximise protection.’
While the Covid is the focus in the change of timeline for the jab rollout, officials will also dish out the flu jab early for ‘operational expediency’.
For those not eligible for a free NHS flu jab, private flu vaccination clinics are offered to adults for as little as £12. Covid jabs are not currently available privately.
Care home residents are being prioritised in the rollout but other groups, as well as the clinically vulnerable, those aged 65 and over, health and social care staff and carers are also expected to be called forward for jabs in September.
UK scientists were first alerted to Pirola on August 14, with concerns immediately triggered due to its large number of mutations.
The UKHSA officially classified it as a variant on August 18 after the first UK case was detected in a hospitalised patient in London and concern continued to grow across the globe about its spread.
UK Health Security Agency statistics show that 589 out of 6,500 neighbourhoods in England had detected at least three Covid cases in the week to August 12. For comparison, just 58 areas had reached this threshold — given to protect the anonymity of patients sickened in tiny clusters — at the start of July. MailOnline analysis shows the figure has gradually increased week-on-week since then, hitting 270 on July 29 and 448 on August 5
Officials yesterday confirmed that a second case had been confirmed as of August 28. No further details were provided about the person. It is unclear what part of the country they are in or whether they have been hospitalised.
However, experts believe many more are infected. Brits are no longer testing en masse like they were earlier in the pandemic — with free community mass testing ending in May 2022.
It means fewer cases are being detected and sequenced — a process which reveals the variant behind an infection.
But in another sign they are taking the variant seriously, health officials today confirmed Covid testing and community surveillance would be ramped up again ahead of winter.
Professor Steven Riley, director general of data, analytics and surveillance at the UKHSA, told MailOnline: ‘Planned scaling up of testing and community surveillance for the winter season, when health pressures usually rise, is in progress and UKHSA will make a further announcement regarding community surveillance plans for this winter shortly.
He added: ‘Protecting the public from Covid remains one of our top priorities.
‘We continue to monitor the threat posed by Covid through our range of surveillance systems and genomics capabilities, which report on infection rates, hospitalisations and the risks posed by new variants.’
It comes as fresh data from the Office for National Statistics yesterday also shows there were 74 coronavirus deaths recorded across England and Wales in the week to August 11.
It marks a 57.4 per cent increase on the previous week when just 47 Covid deaths were logged — signalling the biggest surge in virus fatalities this year.
Scientists warned that the uptick in deaths could signal that a new variant is spreading.
They also called for a return of pandemic mitigation measures, including mask wearing, and increased ventilation because of the virus’ resurgence.
While the weekly surge in deaths is the biggest logged this year, the number dying due to the virus is still a fraction of the death toll earlier in the year.
For comparison, weekly deaths caused by the virus spiked at 654 in January.
These ONS figures only include fatalities when Covid was the main cause of death.
Trends in Covid deaths also lag two weeks behind infection levels, given how long it takes for the infected to become seriously ill.
What is the new variant? How dangerous is it? And is it more infectious than other Covid strains? What we know so far about Pirola
What is the strain?
The spin-off strain has been nicknamed Pirola but is also known scientifically as BA.X/BA.2.86.
One epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, tasked with tracking viral threats like Covid, said last week that the variant could be dubbed ‘Pi’, the letter which follows Omicron in the Greek alphabet – the system officials use to name new strains.
Viruses constantly change through mutation and sometimes these mutations result in new variants.
Where has it been spotted?
Alarm bells over Pirola were first rung last week after a prominent online virus-tracker spotted cases initially crop up in Denmark.
The discovery came just a day after the same lineage was detected in Israel.
On August 17, the CDC also confirmed a fourth case had been detected in Michigan.
On August 18, the UKHSA revealed a single case of BA.2.86 had been detected in the UK.
Denmark also logged another case on August 18, its public health institute, the Statens Serum Institut, confirmed.
The three Danish cases ‘are from different parts of the country, and do not appear to have had contact with each other’, it said, indicating community transmission.
Another case in Virginia was logged on August 22, after the patient travelled into the US from Japan.
Two additional cases in South Africa were also detected on August 23. Further cases have reportedly also been discovered in Switzerland and Thailand.
This means the strain has now been detected in four separate continents.
The variant also follows the arrival of another strain, nicknamed Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1.
Why has it sparked concern?
Pirola was originally highlighted by Shay Fleishon, a former advisor to the Central Virology Laboratory at Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv.
It was later flagged by online Covid variant tracker Ryan Hisner, who tweeted ‘this is the real deal’.
At the time, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London who sits on Independent SAGE, said: ‘To everyone else very very early days but this coronavirus variant (now in 2 countries) has a LOT of new mutations that makes it v different to previous Omicron strains.’
Experts believe the variant has over 30 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.
Some scientists have already called for the return of face masks and a change to Covid vaccine eligibility in the UK because of the spin-off variant.
However, others have warned that it is too early to panic and that lockdowns or other pandemic-era restrictions won’t be needed.
In Denmark, the Statens Serum Institute said it was testing the virus to assess whether it poses a threat.
But, it stressed there is currently no evidence that Pirola causes more severe illness.
How deadly are the symptoms?
A rise in cases could put health services under pressure.
Typically Covid symptoms are known to include a high fever, cough, cold and loss of the sense of taste or smell.
However, there are no signs yet the newly discovered variant, which is different to Eris, known scientifically as EG.5.1, poses any more of a danger than others, including its ancestor Omicron.
Do the vaccines still work?
It is still unclear whether the new variant has any increased ability to evade protection from vaccines compared to other Omicron spin-offs.
Even if the vaccines do not work perfectly against the variant, immunity is likely to still hold up, with most Brits also having been exposed to former Omicron variants.
High levels of protection against the virus gave ministers in the UK the confidence to ditch all Covid measures last year as the country moved to living with the virus.