On Friday it emerged that the variant was behind a Covid outbreak in a care home in Norfolk after 28 out of a total of 34 confirmed cases tested positive for the BA.2.86 strain – nicknamed Pirola.

It has attracted the attention of scientists because it has more than 30 new mutations on it spike protein – the part of the virus used to infect cells.

READ MORE: Covid waves, the BA.2.86 variant, and the winter ahead 

The last time so many mutations occurred in a single evolutionary leap was with the emergence of Omicron in late 2021, which led to a new phase in the pandemic characterised by much greater transmissibility.

Wastewater sampling in Scotland also indicates that the prevalence of the virus has increased sharply since the beginning of July, although experts say there is currently no evidence that it is leading to more severe disease.

Speaking on BBC Scotland’s ‘The Sunday Show’, Professor Rowland Kao, said it was a “very new situation”.

The Herald: Prof Rowland KaoProf Rowland Kao (Image: UniversityofEdinburgh)

Prof Kao, an epidemiologist whose work has involved tracking Covid trends, said: “The important thing to remember is that Covid still has the capacity to surprise – we’re not in any kind of settled pattern.

“We have signals that are telling us, even without any new variants, that Covid might be getting worse.

“We have this variant which is quite different from the things that have happened before.”

READ MORE: Hundreds of hospital wards closed due to Covid outbreaks

Prof Kao encouraged people to test and isolate if they can, but added that he “would like to see lateral flow tests become freely available again because a lot of the people who would be taking them, can’t afford them”.

He added: “I know nothing is cheap, but a lot can be done by getting more data from people.”

The UK’s major surveillance project for Covid – run by the Office for National Statistics – was mothballed in March, making it more difficult to gauge how prevalent the disease now is in the community.

However, data submitted voluntarily as part of the Zoe symptom tracker indicated that Edinburgh had become the UK’s Covid hotspot around the time of the Edinburgh festival.

The Herald: Covid levels have increased sharply, to their highest levels in around a yearCovid levels have increased sharply, to their highest levels in around a year (Image: PHS)

Hospital statistics – based on counting the number of people in hospital who test positive after displaying symptoms – has also increased since the beginning of July.

Prof Kao said that change “tells us something is going on that hasn’t happened before”, adding: “We know from past vaccines the protection declines roughly after six months, but there is still some protection.

“We have to do what we think is best now, and bringing forward these vaccines may help stop the spread.

“At the very least it should help to protect people against severe infection.”

READ MORE: ‘State of denial’ – Why are Highland doctors are already worried about the region’s vaccine rollout

Public Health Scotland is working with health boards to bring forward Covid boosters for the most vulnerable groups, including care home residents and over-75s, who would have been due to receive the vaccine from mid-October.

Across the UK, the rollout has been scaled back this year and will no longer automatically include 50 to 64-year-olds unless they have specific health conditions.

Jillian Evans, the head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, urged the government to consider widening the winter vaccination programme to everyone over the age of 50.

She said: “There is a cost associated with vaccination.

“But the cost of not doing it – such as people being off work, going into hospitals – is something that needs to be considered.”

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