Should we be worried about the new Covid-19 variant?: Experts on the latest FLiRT mutations

Covid cases are spiking across the country as new highly-contagious variants are spreading rapidly. This is what the experts have to say on the new variants.

The variants, known as FLiRT, could be be behind behind a sudden 21% rise in cases and a sharp increase in Covid cases week on week, according to experts. It is feared new strains have already become dominant after a surge in the number of people testing positive and being hospitalised.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which prevents, prepares for and responds to infectious diseases, has issued new guidance on the variants, as people ask how these new strains compare to others. The agency says it will need more data to draw conclusions about the mutations, their transmissibility and severity - but there are some key questions the UKHSA has answered.

Those questions include what people should do if they become unwell, and if they are unsure if they have Covid-19.

READ MORE: All the latest Covid symptoms as new FLiRT variants hit UK

Three new FLiRT strains, KP. 1.1, KP. 3 and KP. 2 now account for 40% of all cases in the UK. Figures were last updated at the end of April, meaning the strain could now be responsible for more than 50% of all cases and be dominant in the UK. The latest numbers from the UKHSA show a 21.2% week-on-week increase in Covid cases in England, 106 new deaths and a 73% increase in patients admitted to hospital with Covid.

The mutation behind these new variants developed from the JN. 1 strain, which was known as Pirola or Juno. The new mutations are referred to by the unofficial nickname FLiRT, representing the replacement of a previous mutation in the virus - F has been replaced with L, and R with T.

In a blog post published on May 13, the UKHSA said: "UKHSA is continuing to monitor data relating to new variants both in the UK and internationally, assessing their severity and the ongoing effectiveness of vaccines. There is no change to the wider public health advice at this time...

"It’s normal for viruses to mutate and change, and more widely we’re still getting to grips with how the healthcare system responds to the ebb and flow of seasonal cases. As more data becomes available on this variant, we’ll have a better understanding of how it interacts with our immune systems and how to optimise our protection and as well as actions we can take to keep the most vulnerable safe and live our lives as normally as possible."

The UKHSA then issued a number of key answers to questions the public might have...

If people become unwell, and are unsure if they have Covid-19, what should they do?

The UKHSA says: "If you have symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as Covid-19, and you have a high temperature or do not feel well enough to go to work or carry out normal activities, you should avoid contact with vulnerable people and stay at home if possible.

"For those of us who absolutely can’t stay at home, our living with Covid guidance is unchanged, and outlines how to prevent transmission to others."

Why should people come forward for their vaccine?

The health agency says: "Vaccines remain our best defence against severe disease and hospitalisation from flu and Covid-19. That’s why we’re asking over-75s, those who have a weakened immune system, and anyone living in a care home for older adults, to come forward for their spring vaccination."

What is the UKHSA doing to monitor the variants?

The agency said: "We publish the latest surveillance data for Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses weekly, to the UKHSA data dashboard. We’re also getting vital data from those who are admitted to hospital with symptoms, and we are utilising genome sequencing to understand which variants people are most vulnerable to.

"There are also specific surveillance programmes in place, where small sample groups are tested regularly. These allow us to monitor trends in the wider community.

"Hospital is where we will see the more severe cases, and we will be monitoring the numbers of people attending with Covid-19 symptoms very carefully. This will help us understand the growth rate and transmission potential of the new variant.

"We continue to collaborate globally with health organisations in other countries, the World Health Organisation and initiatives such as the Global Influenza Surveillance & Response System (GISAID) to ensure that we have the most current data."

What is the UKHSA doing to tackle the new variant?

"When a new variant appears on our radar, at the initial stages it is often quite difficult to know whether the mutations provide any advantages to the virus," says the agency. "Genetic mutations happen all the time, and in some cases have been known to make a virus less transmissible or cause a milder reaction in people.

"At these early stages our scientists at the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre (VDEC) are busy growing a stock of the JN.1 variant in our high containment facilities, so that we can begin testing.

"At the same time, scientists in our Covid-19 Vaccine Unit work hand in glove with vaccine developers to get samples of new, as yet unlicensed, vaccines to assess whether they will give better protection against the virus.

"Vaccinations for flu and Covid-19 help to keep vulnerable people out of hospital and carrying on with their day-to-day lives, as well as reducing pressure on our NHS. If you’re eligible for the jabs, please don’t hesitate, book your vaccine today."