The UK government announced in August 2023 that the autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccine programmes will start “earlier than planned” in response to the identification of a new COVID-19 variant. Scientists from the UKHSA are currently investigating the variant BA.2.86, first identified in the UK on 18th August 2023. It has a “high number of mutations” and has appeared in several countries.  


The variant is not yet classified as a variant of concern but is described as “highly mutated”. Nicknamed ‘Pirola’ by scientists on social media, the variant was first detected in the UK in August. It has been observed in other countries including Israel, Denmark, and the US. Advice from UKHSA suggests that an accelerated vaccine programme would provide greater protection and lessen the burden on the NHS later this year.

In a letter to colleagues dated 30th August 2023, Steve Russell, Chief Delivery Officer and National Director for Vaccinations and Screening at NHS England, commented that the “combined effect of the large number of mutations” is “difficult to predict”. However, “expert advice is clear”: the variant is the “most concerning new variant” since Omicron.  

“The UKHSA has determined the most appropriate intervention with the greatest potential public health impact is to vaccinate all those eligible, quickly.”  
What does this mean? 

The vaccinations are set to start on 11 September 2023 for those most at risk. NHS England will announce further details soon, but Mr Russell emphasised that he would like “as many people as possible” vaccinated by the end of October. The annual flu vaccine will also be made available to these groups where possible.  

Health Minister Maria Caulfield suggested that it is “absolutely vital” that the most vulnerable are vaccinated.  

“As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination programme.”

Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UKHSA, highlighted that some people are more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19. 

“This precautionary measure to bring forward the autumn programme will ensure these people have protection against any potential wave this winter.”  

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