Two new Covid-19 variants designated by UKHSA as cases level off

A patient gets a Covid-19 test (file picture)  (PA Wire)
A patient gets a Covid-19 test (file picture) (PA Wire)

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has designated two new Covid-19 variants in order to facitilate further studies.

In a statement on Friday, the UKHSA announced that Omicron sublineages BQ.1 and XBB would both be monitored by health authorities.

XBB is believed to be behind a recent surge in cases in Singapore and has been confirmed in 35 countries.

It features several mutations in its spike protein allowing it to evade immunity acquired through vaccination or previous infection. However, health authorities in Singapore have said that there is no indication that it causes more severe illness.

The UKHSA said that 18 samples of XBB had been uploaded to the international GISAID database, which is the world's largest repository on genome sequences for Covid-19. There are 1,086 samples in the database from across the globe.

Neither XBB or BQ.1 have currently been designated as variants of concern.

Meanwhile, the UKHSA said that BQ.1 had been designated on the basis of “rapid growth”. A total of 717 samples have been uploaded to the GISAID database for analysis.

Dr Meera Chand, Director of Clinical and Emerging Infection at UKHSA said: “It is not unexpected to see new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge. Neither BQ.1 nor XBB have been designated as Variants of Concern and UKHSA is monitoring the situation closely, as always.

“Vaccination remains our best defence against future COVID-19 waves, so it is still as important as ever that people come take up all the doses for which they are eligible as soon as possible.”

On Thursday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said BQ.1 is showing “a significant growth advantage over other circulating Omicron sublineages in many settings” and warrants further monitoring as a result.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have said there is “no evidence” that BQ.1 causes a more severe infection.

Omicron, which ripped through the UK last Christmas, continues to be the dominant global variant.

In other developments, data published on Friday appears to show that the rise in Covid-19 infections in Britain may be levelling off.

The total number of people in private households in the UK testing positive for the virus stood at 2.05 million in the week to October 17, broadly unchanged on 2.01 million in the previous week, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This is some way below the peak of nearly four million reached in early July, during the wave caused by the Omicron BA.4/BA.5 subvariants of the virus.

Kara Steel, ONS senior statistician for the Covid-19 infection survey, said the new figures show a “mixed picture”.

“Though infections appear to have slowed in England and are now declining in Wales, they are increasing in both Northern Ireland and Scotland,” she said.

In England, the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in the week to October 17 was 1.75 million, or around one in 30 people, compared with 1.71 million the previous week, which was also one in 30.