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COVID variant outbreak in care home 'good and bad news', warns expert

England, UK. 2021. Elderly woman using a swab from the Coronavirus Home Test Kit  about to take the nasel and throat swab test whilst looking in a mi
A general view of a woman taking a COVID test. Some 34 cases of the new BA.2.86 variant have been identified, 28 of which came from a single care home. (Getty Images) (Peter Titmuss)

A major outbreak of a new COVID variant in a care home can be seen as “good and bad news”, an expert has said.

The outbreak happened at a home in Norfolk at the end of last month, with 33 out of 38 residents, as well as 12 staff members, testing positive for the virus.

Some 28 of those 45 cases involved the new BA.2.86 variant. Those 28 positive tests make up the majority of the 34 BA.2.86 cases identified in England so far, according to the UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) latest surveillance briefing released on Friday.

Discussing the care home figures at a meeting of Independent Sage - a scientific group which scrutinises government COVID policy - on Friday, Dr Duncan Robertson said that while 33 of 38 is a "high attack rate, the good news is 29 of those residents have recovered. Only one resident was hospitalised as a result of that illness and thankfully there have been no deaths from that outbreak.”

“Of concern”, however, was the fact 29 out of the 33 residents who tested positive had received a booster vaccine only four months prior.

Read more: Two epidemiologists give Yahoo News their takes on COVID cases rising once again in the UK (from Monday)

Considering only one person became seriously ill, but also that there was a rapid spread of cases in the care home, Dr Robertson concluded the outbreak can be taken as “good and bad news”.

This comes as knowledge about the variant remains limited. UKHSA incident director Dr Renu Bindra has said that while BA.2.86 has a “significant number of mutations” compared with other variants circulating among the population, the data so far are “too limited to draw firm conclusions” about the impact it will have on the transmissibility or severity of the virus.

As of Friday, it had not been classed a variant of concern.

Even so, the rollout of the latest COVID vaccine booster has been brought forward from October as a precautionary measure against BA.2.86.

The programme will now begin in England on Monday, with jabs offered first to residents of adult care homes and clinically vulnerable people. The rollout will then be extended to everyone in the UK aged 65 and over.

What is the current COVID situation?

There are no longer any official estimates of the prevalence of COVID among the UK population, meaning it's impossible to get a full and reliable picture of the spread of the virus. Testing has also been scaled back.

However, the number of people in hospital with COVID - for which there are figures - can shed some light.

Hospital patients in England with COVID. (PA)
Hospital patients in England with COVID. (PA) (PA Wire)

As of Sunday, 2,879 hospital patients in England had tested positive, the highest number since 26 May.

This is still well below the level reached last winter, when the number was nearly 10,000 people, and even further below the peaks seen in the first year of the pandemic.