Covid cases shoot up by 75 per cent in 11 days driven by spring socialising and waning immunity

covid cases shoot up by 75 per cent in 11 days driven by spring socialising and waning immunity

Coronavirus cases have risen by 75 per cent in less than a fortnight

A new surge in Covid cases is sweeping the UK after cases shot up by nearly 75 per cent in less than a fortnight.

It is believed to be driven by increased socialising now that spring has arrived, waning immunity from vaccines and previous infections, as well as a new Omnicron subvariant, known as XXB.1.9.1.

This isn’t causing huge concern among scientists at the moment but it is spreading faster than other strains, suggesting it is more transmissable and a factor behind the rise in Covid cases.

The surge is being fuelled by children, as is typically the case in a new wave – with cases among the under 17s doubling in a fortnight.

Children pass it among themselves at school before transmitting it to their families and older age groups they come into contact with.

A lack of precautions, such as mask wearing and isolating when a person has symptoms are also thought to be behind the increase, as the government and public increasingly behave as if the pandemic is over, scientists say.

“I’m not really surprised by this. We are hearing very little about Covid at present leading to the misplaced assumption that the pandemic is done and dusted, and that we don’t need to worry about protective measures,” said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University.

“But it’s still important to be mindful of how infection is spread and to be cautious about close mixing in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces,” he said.

Daily symptomatic cases in the UK soared by 74 per cent from 78,660 on 9 March to 136,722 on 20 March, rising on all but one of those days, according to the ZOE Health Study.

On 21 March cases fell to 111,241 but Tim Spector, the King’s College London professor who runs the ZOE app said the overall trend was of “rates going up – I wouldn’t read too much into daily changes”.

Professor Karl Friston, a virus modeller at University College London, agreed.

“The main cause of this peak — according to our modelling – is an increase in contact rates as spring approaches. This increase is based upon our behaviour as measured through Google mobility and Department of Transport data over the past two years.”

“The next peak in prevalence is anticipated in late March 2023 – when about 3.5 per cent of the UK population will be infected”.

That compares to around seven per cent of the UK population being infected at one point during the record last May and about three per cent now and over Christmas, he says.

Although it’s not advised to read too much into daily changes, experts will be watching the figures closely over the next few days to see if the drop on Tuesday (the latest day for which figures are available) does in fact mark the peak of the wave – or whether, as expected, cases will continue to rise for the next week or so.

The recent increase puts cases at their highest level since mid December and close to the highest numbers since last July.

But they are still a long way below last Summer’s peak, of around 200,000 cases, and likely to stay that way, experts predict – as the pattern of large but infrequent waves is replaced by smaller, more frequent, wavelets.

And cases are far below last spring’s record of 300,000. But they are higher than at any point up until December 2021 – almost two years into the pandemic.

This month, the UK Health and Security Agency said it was monitoring XBB.1.9.1 in a technical briefing on ‘variants causing concern’.

“XBB.1.9.1 is rapidly increasing in proportion and is currently the only lineage with a significant growth advantage relative to XBB.1.5, though with small numbers identified,” it said.

The share of UK infections accounted for by the new XBB.1.9.1 subvariant has rise from 6 per cent on 21 February to 15 per cent on 3 March, according to the GISAID database – as its greater ability to infect people means it is growing faster than the other Covid subvariants in circulation, such as XBB.1.5, the current most common subvariant.

However, at this point experts do not think the new subvariant is likely to make a huge difference to Covid numbers in the UK.

“It has a small growth advantage over XBB.1.5 but nothing overly dramatic,” according to Professor Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, adding that the subvariant may now.

While XBB.1.9.1 may not be significantly more transmissable than some of the other subvariants around at the moment, collectively these are quite good at evading the immunity we have built up from vaccinaton and previous infections, scientists said.

“The main factor driving new infections remains the antibody evasiveness of the virus along with the considerable proportion of susceptible people being generated by waning immunity,” said Steve Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University.

“The ZOE figures imply that infection is likely rife amongst the school setting and this is then being passed on to families. The poor vaccination coverage in our children is, frankly, scandalous,” he added.

“Whilst behaviour isn’t the main driver of these waves of infection, we can still take steps to lessen their impact. Improved ventilation, use of well-fitted filtering masks in higher risk scenarios, testing and being supported to isolate when unwell would all curb the spread of this virus. Notably, little has been done to install basic environmental protections in schools, even now in the fourth year of this pandemic,” he said.

Simon Williams, of Swansea University, said: “I think we are seeing what living with covid looks like, with very few protective behaviours remaining- face mask wearing and self testing has largely disappeared and will unlikely return to any great extent.

“Although thankfully the waves are no where near as high as earlier in the pandemic, we are also not seeing the low lows and so over time there is still a build up of cases of long covid and missed time from work due to illness.”

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