Everything you need know about the FLiRT Covid variant and a summer infection wave

Covid cases are starting to fall again, even as contagious new FLiRT variants continue to increase their dominance, new figures indicate.

After nearly four weeks of increases, Covid infections fell last week as immunity from infections and boosters started to build back up and warmer weather drew people outside, scientists said.

The latest data showed that “positivity rates” from the virus via the UK Health Security Agency‘s (UKHSA) surveillance system fell by 27 per cent in the week until Thursday 23 May, falling to 6.4 per cent from 8.8 per cent the previous week.

The positivity rate figures relate to the proportion of people who take a Covid test, not the overall population, but scientists say they do give a good rough indication of infection rates more generally.

Covid hospitalisations, meanwhile, also fell slightly in the week, to 2.99 per 100,000 people compared with 3.09 per 100,000 in the previous week, the figures showed.

The fall in overall Covid cases came despite the growing dominance of the new FLiRT variants, known individually as KP.2 and KP.3, which involve two key mutations from the previously dominant JN.1 virus.

This means they can spread more easily.

As such, they have seen their combined share of overall UK infections rise from just a few per cent two months ago to about 78 per cent now.

But overall Covid cases have started to come down as other factors outweigh the effect of the FLiRT variants’ greater contagiousness, scientists said.

“We would expect to see infections falling as we move through spring and into summer as more people are out of doors,” said Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia.

“I suspect that infections will continue to fall until late August or early September before rising again up to the end of the year. However, there may still be some more wavelets like we saw with FLiRT if a new variant appears. But like Flirt I doubt it would have anything other than a short lived minor impact,” he said.

Professor Hunter explained that, while the number of FLiRT variant cases is falling “the other variants are falling much more rapidly” – meaning the FLiRT variants are able to increase their share of infections, even though overall cases are falling.

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, added: “The fall in symptomatic cases of Covid is good news but is tempered by the lack of testing in the general population [to give a true picture of the case numbers more generally].”

“The FLiRT variants are more infectious and able to spread more easily but immunity from previous infections and vaccinations appears to be holding up and providing protection from sickness.

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“The hope is that this immunity along with booster jabs for the most vulnerable and improving weather conditions over the summer will ward off a major wave of infection.

“What will happen over the autumn and winter is less certain. The FLiRT variants show that the virus is continuing to change in unpredictable ways and that we can’t be complacent about the possibility that a much more infectious and immune evasive variant will develop,” he said.

Although cases are starting to fall, Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at UKHSA, urged those people who were eligible for the spring booster, but hadn’t yet taken up the offer, to do so.

“If you have a weakened immune system, reside in a care home, or are 75 years or older, you are eligible for your Covid-19 vaccine. You don’t have to wait for the NHS to get in touch with you, book online at nhs.uk/get-vaccine or call 119 if you don’t have access to the internet,” she said.

The FLiRT variants involve two key mutations from the JN.1 variant, which mean it can spread more easily.

One sees a mutation, known as F, being replaced by another, known as L. The other involves mutation R being supplanted by mutation T – giving the main letters for the term FLiRT.

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