A new COVID variant called EG.5.1 is spreading fast in the UK. It is related to the Omicron variant and may cause more infections and hospitalisations. Experts say we should keep following the safety measures and get vaccinated or boosted.
C OVID-19 is not over. In fact, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is constantly changing. Sometimes, these changes can make the virus more contagious or dangerous. These changes are called variants, and some of them have names like Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron.
You may have heard of a new variant that is spreading across the UK. It is called EG.5.1 – nicknamed Eris – and it is a descendant of the Omicron variant. This means it shares some of the same genetic changes as Omicron, but it also has some differences.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is a government agency that monitors and protects us from infectious diseases. They have been watching EG.5.1 since July, when they noticed it was increasing in some countries, especially in Asia.
1 in 7 testing positive
According to the latest data from UKHSA, EG.5.1 now makes up about 15% of all COVID cases in the UK. That means one in seven people who test positive for COVID have this variant. It is the second most common variant in the UK after another Omicron descendant called Arcturus XBB.1.16, which makes up about 40% of cases.
Map of cases recorded in England
Case rate per 100,000 people for 7–day period ending on 29 July 2023. | CREDIT: UKHSA
EG.5.1 seems to be spreading faster than other variants, and it could be one of the reasons why we are seeing more cases and hospitalisations lately. The UKHSA says that COVID-19 rates have gone up from 3.7% to 5.4% of all respiratory cases in one week. The hospital admission rate has also increased from 1.17 to 1.97 per 100,000 people.
Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at UKHSA, says they are watching the situation closely and advises us to stay alert.
“We have also seen a small rise in hospital admission rates in most age groups, particularly among the elderly.
“Overall levels of admission still remain extremely low and we are not currently seeing a similar increase in ICU admissions.
“We will continue to monitor these rates closely.”
— Dr Mary Ramsay, UKHSA
What we know about EG.5.1
First of all, we know that EG.5.1 is related to Omicron, which means it has some mutations that may help it escape our immune system. This means that people who have been vaccinated or infected before may still get sick from this variant.
However, this does not mean that vaccines are useless against EG.5.1. In fact, vaccines still offer some protection against severe illness and death from this variant, especially if you have had two doses or a booster shot.
The World Health Organization (WHO) have been tracking EG.5.1 since mid-July, and they say that vaccines and prior infection can still protect us from this variant.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, says that we should not let our guard down and we should follow the safety measures that we know work.
“WHO continues to advise people at high risk to wear a mask in crowded places, to get boosters when recommended, and to ensure adequate ventilation indoors.
“And we urge governments to maintain and not dismantle the systems they built for COVID-19.”
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO
How to stay safe
Some of these systems include testing, tracing, isolating, and treating people who have COVID-19 or who have been exposed to it. These are important ways to stop the spread of the virus and its variants.
Another way to protect ourselves and others from EG.5.1 is to avoid travelling to places where this variant is very common unless it is absolutely necessary.
Finally, EG.5.1 is not the only variant that we need to worry about. There may be other variants that emerge in the future that could be even more contagious or dangerous than EG.5.1 or Omicron.
That is why we need to keep following the advice of experts and scientists who are working hard to understand and fight this virus, and who say we should keep following the safety measures and get vaccinated or boosted. We have been through a lot since this pandemic started, but we can get through this together if we stay informed, safe, and healthy.