Efforts to observe and manage Covid in the UK have been amplified by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) as the chilly touch of winter draws near. We delve into the present state of Covid and the mechanism of its tracking.
What’s the Present Scenario of Covid?
Recent statistics from the UKHSA have shown a surge in Covid cases in England over the preceding months, a trend underscored by an uptick in hospital admissions. However, these increasing numbers seem to have reached a plateau. Uncertainty looms, however, with the advent of winter potentially escalating indoor gatherings and, consequently, the risk of respiratory infections, including Covid. The emergence of the new Covid variant BA.2.86 adds another layer of complexity to the predicament.
Prof Steven Riley, director general of data, analytics and surveillance at UKHSA, stated:
“It seems like patterns of waning [immunity] and the evolution of [the] virus itself are still the main drivers for the sort of variation that we’re seeing. [Covid] doesn’t seem to have dropped into any kind of resonance with seasonal factors.”
How is Covid Being Tracked?
Several protocols, including the testing of certain patients in hospitals and healthcare settings, swabbing in specific GP practices, and the reporting of respiratory symptom cases are currently active. Despite these measures, the winding down of many community surveys has evoked concerns of “flying blind” this fall.
While conceding that the existing data collection is less exhaustive than during the pandemic’s peak, Riley affirms it provides a “pretty good picture”.
“It’s obviously not as good as it was during the height of the pandemic, but times have changed and we have to be somewhat proportionate to the changing risk,” he articulated.
In anticipation of winter, UKHSA has ramped up its surveillance efforts. The agency unveiled Siren 2.0 last month, an enhancement of the Siren study, to monitor Covid, flu, and RSV among healthcare professionals through both PCR and antibody tests. Additionally, the Winter Covid-19 Infection Study (WCIS), in partnership with the Office for National Statistics, is set to commence from November 2023 through March 2024, targeting up to 200,000 participants in Scotland and England.
What Insights Can These Studies Offer?
UKHSA anticipates that these initiatives will offer critical insights into the transmission and severity of Covid and evaluate the robustness of our defensive measures.
“Siren 2.0 testing of healthcare workers… will help provide answers on vaccine efficacy against [BA.2.86], other circulating variants and infection-acquired immunity,” the agency confirmed.
WCIS, on the other hand, aims to illuminate the obscure landscape of community-level infections, while also monitoring the virus’s evolution. Riley conjectures a scenario where a significant surge in hospitalisations could occur in the absence of a corresponding uptick in community cases due to a variant’s increased severity.
Are There Any Concerns?
Certainly, there are challenges. WCIS will employ Lateral Flow Device (LFD) tests rather than the more sensitive PCR tests, a switch that limits the granularity of data on specific Covid variants and other respiratory infections.
Riley, however, underscores the expedience and cost-effectiveness of LFDs, emphasizing that “the full cost of the study that uses an LFD is probably more proportionate to the risk.” Moreover, other surveillance frameworks are in operation to monitor flu and RSV.
What If Covid Cases Surge Again?
An intriguing query. Riley asserts that enhanced surveillance will facilitate improved situational cognizance of Covid, aiding the generation of responsive strategies for ministers. Although he abstained from detailing potential responsive options, the data procured will be instrumental in equipping the NHS to tackle surges in demand.
As for the implications for the public and guidelines for festive congregations, these remain a matter of speculation.
“I have certainly no views on Christmas at this time,” Riley demurred.