Expert says Brits should mask up and social distance as Covid surges

This Morning: Dr Zoe talks about new Covid variant XBB1.5

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The NHS is battling a raft of respiratory illnesses this winter, including flu and the new COVID-19 subvariant, XBB.1.5, causing immense strain on vital services. This is why it is wise to don masks on public transport and in crowded places and exercise some social distancing once again. That’s the advice of clinical microbiologist and virologist Professor Ravindra Gupta at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Cambridge. Prof. Gupta said that, because of the lack of sequencing going on, it’s hard to know the exact dynamics of this latest strain, but it’s “something we need to watch out for. I wouldn’t say we need to get really panicked about it, because we have had quite reasonable levels of vaccination in this country.”

However, Prof. Gupta added, “I would suggest that this is a reason to step up vaccination efforts in the UK with the bivalent vaccine that we have access to now — I think the uptake of that hasn’t been as good as it could have been.

“[This] is in the setting of a lot of influenza and other respiratory diseases causing quite nasty infections with people off sick for quite some time and having symptoms that are lingering on.

“This is a good reason to start masking up — at least for the rest of this winter season, not least because even if it’s not coronavirus, you might protect yourself from some of these other viruses.”

Prof. Gupta said that cases of respiratory illness in the UK at the moment are still heavily weighted towards influenza, but that XBB.1.5 could drive a Covid expansion.

According to Prof. Gupta, part of what makes the XBB.1.5 subvariant special is that it has managed an evolutionary feat that has evaded its predecessors.He explained: “Some of the other viruses have made changes which allowed immune escape — in other words, to infect you despite having antibodies from vaccine or infection.

“But often this comes with a cost to the virus. The cost is usually spending the tightness with which the virus can bind to the ACE2 receptors and therefore get into cells.”

XBB.1.5, in contrast, “has found the solution to doing the immune escape as well as binding tightly to the cell. So it hasn’t got the same cost and that’s why we think it’s thriving.

“It’s able to fulfil two duties, which is firstly to evade our defences and secondly to maintain how much infection it can produce, or how many new copies of itself it can make.”He concluded: “So, that’s why we’re worried about it.”

Infectious disease expert Professor Sir Andrew Pollard of the University of Oxford told Express.co.uk: “With the recent arrival of the XBB.1.5 COVID-19 variant, derived from Omicron, in the US and now the UK, we should be cautious not to drive fear that each new variant heralds a new crisis in the pandemic.

“There is no reason to think that XBB.1.5 is of any more concern than other variants that come and go in the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 mutants.

“In the UK, today, the issue is not new infections with COVID-19, which is just one of many non-pandemic viruses that make us sick, but the chronic shortage of capacity, money and staff in our health and social care system.

“These are not easy problems to solve but, unlike pandemics, they are not solved by leaps in science or short-term fixes, but by a long-term vision for our health shared across the political divide.”

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Professor Francois Balloux — a computational systems biologist with University College London — said: “The SARS-CoV-2 XBB.1.5 strain is defined as an XBB.1.5 variant additionally carrying the F486P mutation in the Spike protein.”

“This mutation makes it slightly less immune evasive than its XBB.1 ancestor but more infectious, probably because it increases binding affinity to the human cell receptor ACE2.XBB.1.5 is not anticipated to cause more severe disease than other SARS-CoV-2 lineages in circulation.

“Immunisation through vaccination and prior infection continues to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalisation and death upon infection with the XBB.1.5 strain.”

According to Prof. Balloux, while XBB.1.5 has become dominant in parts of the US, it remains “fairly uncommon” in other countries — and is still below 5 percent in the UK. He added: “It is widely anticipated to go up in frequency globally, and may cause a sizable fraction of cases globally in the near future.

“As such, it could push up case numbers over the coming weeks in the UK. That said, it remains questionable whether XBB.1.5 will cause a major wave on its own.”

Molecular virologist Professor Jonathan Ball of the University of Nottingham told Express.co.uk that while XBB.1.5 is a sub-variant of Omicron ,there’s no evidence it’s more dangerous.

“It might be able to escape antibodies, but that’s not the only immunity we have. Our immune system is used to adapting to viruses,” he said. He added: “We’d better get used to the emergence of new variants, at least for the foreseeable future.

“Yes, they will lead to new waves of infection, but vaccination is still proving to be a very effective weapon to protect the most vulnerable from serious disease.

“That’s why it’s incredibly important if you are vulnerable because of older age or because you have other diseases that put you at increased risk of serious Covid to get that immunity topped up and get boosted.”

SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — is, he added, “here to stay and we have to get used to it, and that means having an adequately funded NHS so we can deal with these inevitable outbreaks.”

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