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COVID Infections 'May Have Peaked', BA.5 Omicron Strain Now Dominant

COVID-19 infections have continued to increase in England but the trend in the rest of the UK remains uncertain, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported.

Statisticians said it was too early to say whether the most recent wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections had started to peak.

It comes after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said yesterday that data in its latest 'flu and COVID-19 surveillance report indicated that the increase in COVID case rates and hospitalisations continued to show signs of slowing. However, scientists at the Agency warned that there was no room for complacency and that people aged 75 were at particular risk of severe disease if they are not up to date with their vaccinations.

The BA.5 strain of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, first identified in April, is now dominant in the UK, amounting to an estimated 78.7% of cases as of 18 July, the UKHSA said in its latest technical briefing.

Cases Still Rising in England

The ONS reported a continuing upward trend in the proportion of people testing positive for COVID in England, with an estimated 3.15 million people testing positive in the week ending July 13, up from 2.87 million in the week to July 6. The latest figure equated to 5.77% of the population, or around 1 in 17 people.

The situation in the rest of the UK was unclear. The percentage of the population who were positive in Wales was estimated at 6.03%, or 1 in 17 in the same period.

In the week ending July 14, the percentage of people testing positive in Scotland was estimated at 6.48% of the population, equating to 1 in 15, while in Northern Ireland it was 4.82%, or 1 in 20 of the population.

An analysis by English region suggested that the percentage of positive tests continued to increase in the North West, East of England, London, and the South East. The trend was uncertain in other regions, the ONS said.

The percentage of positive tests in England continued to increase for those in school Year 7 to school Year 11, people aged 50 to 69 years, and those aged 70 and over.

Kara Steel, senior statistician for the COVID-19 Infection Survey, said: "Infections have, overall, continued to increase in England, reaching similar levels to those seen in April during the Omicron BA.2 wave. However, we are seeing some uncertain trends in the latest data across the other UK countries, some English regions, and among some age groups. 

"It is too early to say if this most recent wave is starting to peak, but we will continue to closely monitor the data."

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the Science Media Centre: "Because people can remain positive for about 11 days after first becoming positive for COVID, the ONS data is always about 2 to 3 weeks behind the epidemic curve, as far as new infections are concerned." He pointed out that other sources, including the Government's coronavirus dashboard, and the ZOE app, "suggested that for England the number of new infections peaked around the 8th, 9th, 10th July, and are now in decline".

Omicron BA.2.75

The UKHSA announced today that Omicron BA.2.75 had been categorised as a separate variant to other BA.2 variants, although not as a variant of concern. The UKHSA said there had been 24 cases of BA.2.75 in the UK up until July 18. Of those, 20 were in England, 3 in Scotland, and 1 in Wales.

Dr Meera Chand, UKHSA director of clinical and emerging infection, said: "We continue to monitor the emergence of new variants and give them variant designations if they are sufficiently distinct to warrant separate epidemiological and laboratory assessment. It is not unexpected to see new lineages and continued investigation is a normal part of the surveillance of an infectious disease.

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