A highly transmissible coronavirus (Covid-19) variant, nicknamed the ‘stealth variant’, has been identified. As of 28 January, it accounted for around 9% of coronavirus cases in the UK. Yet prime minister Boris Johnson has gone ahead and abandoned many of the protections in place against the virus.
The stealth variant is described as a ‘cousin’ of Omicron and designated BA.2. It’s called stealth because it “has certain genetic traits that make it more difficult to identify as Omicron on diagnostic tests—specifically polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) tests”. However, that does not mean that results of a positive coronavirus test or the care needed will change.
Studies from Japan, not yet peer-reviewed, suggest BA.2 is not only more transmissible than the original Omicron but can cause more severe disease. Worryingly, it also found that “therapeutic monoclonal antibodies used to treat people infected with COVID didn’t have much effect on BA.2”.
However it’s understood:
BA.1 [Omicron] and BA.2 both appear to evade immunity created by COVID-19 vaccines, the study said. But a booster shot makes illness after infection 74% less likely.
And more clarity is needed:
It’s not clear yet if BA.2 causes more severe illness in people. While BA.2 spreads faster than BA.1, there’s no evidence the subvariant makes people any sicker, an official with the World Health Organization said.
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Trevor Bedford is a scientist based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre in the US. In January, he reported that BA.2 had been found in 74 countries:
We see that Omicron 21L is increasing in frequency in multiple countries with Denmark currently estimated at ~82%, the UK at ~9% and the US at ~8%. 8/15 pic.twitter.com/N8hcngTiOS
— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) January 28, 2022
‘Living with Covid’
Despite the variant, as of 24 February there’s no longer a legal requirement to isolate for anyone who tests positive for the virus. And from 1 April,
people will no longer be eligible for Employment and Support Allowance because they are self-isolating due to COVID-19
This is unless “they have a health condition or disability that affects their ability to work”.
To make matters worse, free Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS and social care staff will only continue until the end of March. It could also be before that if:
the UK IPC [Infection Prevention and Control] guidance on PPE usage for COVID-19 is amended or superseded.
All these moves could potentially exacerbate the spread of the stealth variant and bring about a new wave of cases.
Poor people hardest hit
Trade unions have condemned the fact that statutory sick pay for those with coronavirus symptoms will no longer be available from 24 March. And trade unionist Howard Beckett notes that from 2 April, the government will no longer support low paid workers in minimising the risk the virus poses:
If you are low paid worker with Covid on 2nd April you can:-
•pay for your own test kit;
•live for three days without any pay;
•on day four of being unwell live on statutory sick pay the equivalent of £2.48phr.
Or go into work & spread the virus to your colleagues.
— Howard Beckett (@BeckettUnite) February 22, 2022
Condemnation by scientists
There has been widespread condemnation of these moves by the scientific community.
Also, a number of scientists have signed a letter to England’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty. It stated that ending protections will almost certainly “increase the circulation of the virus and remove the visibility of emerging variants of concern”.
The letter has gained more than 3,800 signatories. It added:
Every strain of SARS-CoV-2 to date has failed to reach population saturation. Instead, each has been replaced by a new variant that is more transmissible, more immunity-escaping or both. This pattern will likely be repeated, and further reinfections will occur, with a continuing burden of disease and displacement in the healthcare system.
The British Medical Association (BMA) also criticised the Living with Covid plans, saying:
Today’s announcement fails to protect those at highest risk of harm from Covid-19, and neglects some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The BMA added how the strategy will:
create a two-tier system, where those who can afford to pay for testing – and indeed to self-isolate – will do so, while others will be forced to gamble on the health of themselves and others.
Covid-19 has already disproportionately impacted those on lower incomes, in insecure employment and from ethnic minorities. This move threatens to exacerbate these health inequalities.
It further added:
Meanwhile, all people must be financially supported to do the right thing, and the removal of self-isolation payments, and then access to statutory sick pay in a months’ time, is incredibly concerning, as it will mean people cannot afford to stay at home if they are unwell.
Risking the nation’s health
Johnson is determined to open the economy in order to appease his Tory backbenchers. This is an attempt to retain power, whatever the consequences. As Labour MP Zarah Sultana said:
This isn't about "living with Covid". It's about placating Tory backbenchers and saving Boris Johnson's skin.
He's putting himself before public health.
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) February 21, 2022
With the emergence of the stealth subvariant, only time will tell if the lifting of protections has been dangerously too early.
Hopefully the public will do what it can to act responsibly, despite the government’s gamble with our lives.
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