UK summer Covid wave: What variants are spreading and is there anything to worry about?

Covid-related ICU admissions have been increasing over the summer (Victoria Jones/PA Archive)
Covid-related ICU admissions have been increasing over the summer (Victoria Jones/PA Archive)

Evidence has suggested that the Covid levels are rising and experts are concerned over summer variants taking hold.

The latest data from UKHSA said Covid hospitalisations in England for the week beginning June 10 rose to 3.31 per 100,000 – up from 2.67 per 100,000 the previous week.

Stats have shown intensive care unit admissions as a result of Covid have increased, as has the number of people testing positive based on swabbing results offered at some GP surgeries.

Experts said there is a slight concern over the stats but that it is hard to get a full picture of the state of Covid in the UK, as testing is not being done routinely. They warned people to keep a close eye on their health.

Professor Danny Altmann of Imperial College London explained: “It’s obviously harder currently to collate definitive data on infections, but there seems to be consensus that we are in a period of rising breakthrough infections and hospitalisations.

“This is certainly a subject of ongoing concern and need for vigilance, not least in respect of advice on booster uptake for the vulnerable.”

What Covid variants are known to be circulating in the UK?

Experts said the dominant group of subvariants in the UK are all descended from the JN.1 variant that took off during the winter, which is itself related to Omicron.

JN.1 is a Covid variant that descended from BA.2.86 – the Pirola variant from Omicron. Dr Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, has likened JN.1 to “another Omicron variant”.

JN.1 and BA.2.86 are very similar but differ in spike protein. The spike (which lies on the virus's surface) is what causes the virus to infect people. For this reason, the spike is what vaccines will target, but CDC predicts that vaccines will work in the same way to target both variants – just as updated vaccines were effective treatment for BA.2.86.

JN.1 is a derivative of BA.2.86, so there is some concern it may be more transmissible and reveal different symptoms. On ITV's This Morning, Dr Nighat Arif previously spoke of the differences.

She said: “With the new variant, the Pirola variant, we know that not only do you get temperature, runny nose, a headache, we still have that loss of sense of smell, but you might actually get diarrhoea with it. Stomach cramps can also appear with the Pirola strain."

What is causing the new wave?

Professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia, who has studied the effects of Covid, said, given that much of the data was collected in healthcare settings, most reported cases tended to be in older or vulnerable people and said a weakened immune system could be the reason for the rise.

He said: “I suspect increases in this age group are due to falling levels of sterilising immunity, especially given that the uptake of the spring booster in people over 75 years old was little more than 60%.”

However, he added that younger people should still be wary as they could be at risk of infection.

He said: “In people who were infected over winter, sterilising immunity would be falling by now, and in people who had not had an infection then or since, there would be relatively little sterilising immunity left,” he said.

How concerned should we be?

Figures show the rate of Covid hospitalisations is still below what it was last winter, and the severity of infections is lower for most people than was the case even a year ago. The data also showed that, in the week ending June 14, 152 deaths in England and Wales involved Covid, and 100 were due directly to Covid.

Professor Hunter added: “Although Covid infections are now relatively trivial for most people, some – and particularly the over-75 age group – are still suffering from severe disease. That is why the spring booster was still important for this age group.”