The warning comes as the latest data showed that EG.5, a subvariant of omicron, now accounts for 1 in 10 COVID cases - while the number of people recorded with the virus jumped from an estimated 3.3 per 100,000 to 7.2 in less than a month.
But a brand new variant referred to as BA.6 has led some to fear that a bleak coronavirus picture could emerge in the weeks ahead.
While it has only been found in two countries so far, Denmark and Israel, one expert has claimed the new sub-strain is already showing an alarming tendency to mutate – noting that it has left a number of her peers concerned. Experts believe that the variant has over 30 mutations in its spike protein – the part of the virus that latches onto human cells and causes an infection.
However, it still remains unclear if it will succeed in spreading efficiently or if it will just fizzle out like many other heavily mutated variants.
Dr. Trisha Greenhalgh, an internationally renowned expert in primary care from the University of Oxford, tweeted that "it looks like it's once again time to MASK UP" but also acknowledged that she understood "little of the detail."
Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, said it was "very early" but conceded that the variant [BA.6] has a "lot of new mutations that make it very different to previous omicron strains."
In a recent opinion piece in the British Medical Journal, Pagel wrote that it was "reasonably certain that we have entered another COVID-19 wave." But Pagel noted that while the variant was growing in prevalence and appeared to be better at evading the immune system, there was no evidence that it can cause more severe diseases.
She added that one of her main fears was that COVID infections could create strain on the National Health Service (NHS) by occurring at the same time as influenza infection and respiratory syncytial virus, as seen last winter.
There was also the "less likely" scenario of a new, undiscovered variant emerging, which could overwhelm people's resistance to the virus. Pagel warned that waning immunity could mean a larger wave of new infections.
"It will probably cause a wave of more cases and all the problems that bring – [such as] more hospitalizations and long COVID – but [there is] no reason at the moment to think [that will be] worse than previous waves this year," she said.
Virologist Stephen Griffin, a professor at the University of Leeds, said that while the prevalence of the variant was increasing relatively slowly in the U.K., its infectiousness and ability to evade antibodies meant that the number of cases could grow more rapidly when schools return and people go back to work and university after the summer.
John Edmunds, an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the new variant may well cause an increase in incidence but added that "successive waves of omicron sub-variants has been the pattern for the last 18 months now."
No official guidance for face masks has been issued by government or public health authorities in the U.K. since the legal requirement to wear a face covering ended on January 27, 2022.
Some experts told Mail Online that the emergence of a new variant "is not surprising." They said it is far too early to panic and argued that pandemic-era restrictions won't be needed.
"If it is BA.6, that means it probably isn't that different from what has gone before and so unlikely to be an important threat but time will tell," said Paul Hunter, a respected vaccine science and infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia.
He added that since omicron, the balance of evidence is that masking no longer is associated with much if any reduced infection rates either in hospitals, schools or the community.
"There is no indication that we need to change our practices at present." (Related: The science is undeniable: Face masks do NOT stop COVID transmission.)
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