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New Covid variant BA.2.86 behind Norfolk care home outbreak

A new Covid variant is spreading in England and is behind an outbreak at a care home in Norfolk, health officials say.

There have been 34 confirmed cases of BA.2.86, with 28 of those at the care home. There have been no deaths.

It is too early to draw conclusions on whether it is more serious than past variants, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.

People eligible for a booster jab this autumn are encouraged to come forward.

The government recently announced that the vaccine rollout would be earlier than planned because of the new variant. It will start next week.

The UK Health Security Agency’s latest briefing on Covid includes an analysis on BA.2.86, an Omicron spin-off.

It says out of the 34 cases confirmed through sequencing in a lab, five people have needed hospital treatment.

Based on detection of multiple unlinked cases in different regions of the UK, it’s likely there is “established community transmission of BA.2.86”, UKHSA says.

Scotland has also recorded two cases.

Norfolk County Council has been offering infection advice and support to the care home where there has been an outbreak.

Staff and residents were asked to have tests when an unusually high number of people became unwell, health officials say.

Lab analysis found that BA.2.86 was confirmed in the majority of samples from those tests.

This is an early indication that the variant “may be sufficiently transmissible to have impact in close contact settings”, the analysis said.

The variant has been detected in a number of countries around the world.

Dr Renu Bindra, incident director at UKHSA, said BA.2.86 had a significant number of mutations compared to other Covid variants circulating at the moment.

But she added: “The data so far is too limited to draw firm conclusions about the impact this will have on the transmissibility, severity or immune escape properties of the virus.”

Dr Bindra said it was likely to be some time before a confident assessment on that could be made.

“It is clear that there is some degree of widespread community transmission, both in the UK and globally, and we are working to ascertain the full extent of this,” she said.

Two cases of BA.2.86 have been identified in Scotland through lab testing.

No cases have been reported in Wales or Northern Ireland.

Changing dates criticised

The Department of Health and Social Care has been criticised for changing its mind on the start date of the autumn Covid and flu vaccine programme.

It usually begins in early September, but was pushed back to October to increase protection in December and January when flu and Covid are more likely to cause problems.

The timing has now changed again, to 11 September, because of concerns over the new variant.

Pharmacists said last week that they had been left with very little time to prepare for the rollout of Covid and flu vaccines.

People who are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine include:

  • residents in a care home for older adults
  • all adults aged 65 years and over
  • anyone aged six months to 64 years in a clinical risk group
  • front-line health and social care workers
  • anyone aged 12 to 64 years who lives in the same house as people with weakened immune systems  —