A leading virologist has warned that the UK will need further COVID booster vaccinations ahead of winter to protect the elderly and vulnerable.
Professor Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, said that rising infections rates could pose a significant threat for much of the population if not addressed swiftly.
According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), COVID-19 infections in the UK are up 32% on the previous week with an estimated 2.3 million people infected on Friday, 25 June, the most recent date for which figures are available.
“This significant rise in infections is really worrying and demonstrates that there’s no room for complacency as far as covid is concerned," said Young.
"It’s a wakeup call about our vulnerability to new variants – this wave of infection is driven by new Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, that are more infectious and able to evade immune protection afforded by vaccination and previous infection."
Prof Young said that the new variants did not pose as much of a threat to life as earlier strains of the virus, but warned that the vulnerable would need to be protected ahead of even higher infection rates later in the year.
"The good news is that where other countries have experienced significant waves of B.4 and BA.5, namely Portugal and South Africa, these waves have now peaked without a major increase in severe disease, principally due to the levels of vaccination in these populations," he said.
The most recent ONS report showed that In the week ending 25 June an estimated 1,829,100 people would have tested positive for COVID in England – about one in 30 people — compared to one in 40 the previous week.
The rates are even higher in Scotland with an estimated 288,200 people testing positive, equating to one in 18 people.
In Wales, an estimated 106,000 people tested positive during the same week – equal to about one in 30. In Northern Ireland the estimated number of people testing positive was 7000, or one in 25.
Infections increased across all English regions and in all age groups, the ONS said.
Infection levels are now higher than at the peak of the Alpha variant wave in January 2021. At the time of the Alpha peak, however, hospital admissions were more than three times higher and deaths were 22 times higher.
Prof Young said that UK experts hope that a peak has been reached for the latest variants. However, he added: "This wave does provide a warning for what we could experience over the autumn and winter.
"We need to prepare now for the autumn and winter months when colder weather will drive people indoors increasing the risk of infection not only with new covid variants but also with other respiratory virus infections.
"Waning immunity means that booster shots will be necessary in the autumn to protect the elderly, clinically vulnerable and frontline healthcare workers.”
Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the school of medicine at University of Leeds, said that the current increase in infections was “sadly predictable”.
“The constant bombardment of waves we are seeing does cause clinical impact that is not to be underestimated," he said.
"The lack of a sharp peak for hospital admissions and deaths doesn’t change the overall area under the curve over time. We should also expect for these measures to lag behind the rapid increase in cases.”
As variants continue to mutate, vaccine companies are developing jabs to tackle new outbreaks and mutations of coronavirus.
Novavax Inc said on Friday it expects to provide a COVID-19 vaccine targeting Omicron by the winter, as it accelerates development of shots to protect against the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
Data published last week by Moderna showed that its “bivalent” jab offers good protection against Omicron that lasts longer than the original vaccine. It also increases immunity against BA.4 and BA.5.