COVID booster vaccines are being rolled out across England as a new variant carrying a high number of mutations circulates around the country.
According to experts at the Zoe health study, more than 1.2 million people in the UK are showing symptomatic cases of COVID amid an upward trend in infections.
The coronavirus and flu vaccination programme started earlier than planned on Monday after BA.2.86 was detected in the UK.
While the Omicron subvariant has not been classified as a “variant of concern”, scientists have said that it carries many mutations and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is watching it closely.
There have been enough unlinked cases detected in different parts of the country to suggest the variant is circulating among the community.
BA.2.86, nicknamed "Pirola" by some scientists, has been labelled a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organisation (WHO) - its second tier of notable COVID variants. Othr strains to have emerged in the past couple of months include Pi and Eris.
Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in the US, warned the new strain has “all the hallmark features of something that could take off,” although it's still too early to tell its full impact.
It comes as more than 12 million people in the UK are set to miss out on a coronavirus vaccine this winter as the numbers being offered a booster jab have been scaled back.
Both the COVID-19 booster and flu jab will not be offered to healthy people under the age of 65 this winter, health officials said earlier this month.
The rollout will start with people in care homes and those who are housebound.
The advice comes from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Who is eligible for a COVID-19 booster this autumn?
All adults aged 65 and over
Care home residents
Those aged six months to 64 years in a "clinical risk group", with illnesses including severe asthma, diabetes and a number of chronic illnesses
Frontline health and social care workers
People who are immunosuppressed – either through illness or treatment for cancer – and their household contacts aged 12 and over
Those aged over 16 who are carers
How can I find out if I am eligible for a COVID booster jab this year?
Go to Gov.uk for the full list of those eligible, which includes the Immunisation Green Book that lays out clinical risk groups.
What are the new COVID variants?
The new Eris strain of coronavirus is a variant of Omicron also know as EG.5. It was first classified as a variant in the UK on 31 July.
The Zoe Health Study app estimates there were 100,516 new symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on 10 September, estimating that 1,240,072 people in the UK currently have symptomatic coronavirus.
The most common symptoms of the Eris strain include a sore throat, runny nose, blocked nose, sneezing and a dry cough.
Meanwhile, BA.2.86 was first detected in Denmark on 24 July, with a second case picked up on 31 July. That same day, it was discovered in Israel.
Other cases of the strain were picked up in the USA in August, while the UK also detected its first known case in London last month.
There are still too few cases of this particular subvariant to describe its specific symptoms, but scientists hope to find out more in the coming weeks.
Why are fewer people being offered a booster jab this autumn?
Health officials said that the larger group was offered the booster jab last year as part of the “emergency response” to the pandemic and that its success has allowed the number to be scaled back.
The COVID-19 jab is not available privately in the UK, so those who were offered the vaccine last year and are not eligible this year will not be able to purchase the jab themselves.
Adults who have yet to receive a COVID vaccine will be eligible to get a single jab during the booster campaign.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, chairman of COVID-19 immunisation at the JCVI, said: “The autumn booster programme will continue to focus on those at greatest risk of getting seriously ill.
“It is important that everyone who is eligible takes up a booster this autumn – helping to prevent them from hospitalisations and deaths arising from the virus over the winter months.”
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at UKHSA, said: “The COVID-19 virus has not gone away and we expect to see it circulating more widely over the winter months, with the numbers of people getting ill increasing.
“The booster is being offered to those at higher risk of severe illness and by taking up the booster vaccine this autumn – you will increase your protection ahead of winter, when respiratory viruses are typically at their peak.”
What has the government said about autumn boosters?
Health secretary Steve Barclay said he had accepted the JCVI advice for the booster programme in England, adding: “NHS England will confirm details on how and when eligible people can access the autumn booster vaccine shortly, and I would urge anyone invited – including those yet to have their first jab – to come forward as soon as possible.”