More than 160 cases of ‘flurona’ have already been detected in England, MailOnline can reveal — but experts say true toll could be in the region of 1,000 and insist it the fears are ‘overhyped’.
Health chiefs said the real figure of those who have had both viruses at once will be higher, and around three in 10 people who require an intensive oxygen treatment in hospital have a secondary infection on top of Covid.
But doctors monitoring the cases have so far reported mild symptoms, and one top expert said concerns over ‘flurona’ are ‘overhyped’.
Flu has yet to make a resurgence in the UK after cases fell to their lowest level in 130 years during the pandemic, as restrictions brought in to reduce the spread of Covid also prevented flu cases from reaching usual levels.
Experts warned this lack of immunity could lead to 60,000 flu deaths this winter, up from the usual annual death toll of 10,000 to 25,000.
But data from the Office for National Statistics — which groups death data for flu and pneumonia — shows this category of fatalities were a fifth lower in November than the five year average in England.
However, experts told MailOnline the risk of dual infections will inevitably increase if flu takes off this winter, like seen elsewhere.
The UKHSA graphic shows the number of Covid patients who tested positive for another virus within a day of having their Covid infection confirmed (black bar). It also shows the number of people who tested positive for another virus within 28 days before testing positive for Covid (light blue bar) and within 28 days after having their Covid status confirmed (blue bar)
UKHSA data shows the rate of people per 1,000 individuals in England presenting with flu-like symptoms rose towards the end of 2021. The graph shows the number of people visiting their GP (green), phoning their GP (blue), visiting hospital (black), phoning NHS 111 (yellow) with flu-like symptoms. But flu deaths in England were a fifth below the five-year average in November, according to ONS data, and experts warn the flu season is yet to kick off
The UKHSA report shows 93 Covid patients were diagnosed with influenza A, while 37 had influenza B and four had an unconfirmed type of the virus.
But the figures only go up to October 24, before Omicron had taken off to infect up to one in 10 people by New Year’s Eve.
The UKHSA admitted the figure could be an underestimate, as flu tests are not as widely available as Covid tests.
What is ‘flurona’?
People who are infected with both flu and Covid have been dubbed as ‘flurona’ cases.
This is not a newly mutated virus. Instead, people become infected with both viruses at the same time.
Data released by Public Health England in 2020 — before vaccines were rolled out — showed those who caught Covid and flu were twice as likely to die.
And the most recent figures from the UK Health Security Agency shows that around a third of Covid patients who are put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — a machine that takes over a patient’s heart and lung functions — are also infected with another virus.
But experts warned fears around ‘flurona’ are over-hyped, as it is common for people to catch more than one respiratory virus at once.
And while acknowledging they will have not picked up all cases, UK health chiefs found just 0.002 per cent of people who caught Covid were also infected with flu – around one in 50,000.
Around half of the flu cases were detected within a day of testing positive for Covid, while the other infections were detected within a month of a positive test.
The figures equate to just 0.002 per cent of all Covid cases having concurrent flu infection.
Nearly half of the coinfections (62) were detected in the first three months of the pandemic, up to June 28 2020.
Meanwhile, 32 were registered during the second wave — between June 29 2020 and April 26 2021.
Some 40 cases were detected between April 27 and October 24 2021.
And the remaining 35 were detected between October 25 and November 28, equating to more than one case per day, the highest level recorded in the pandemic so far.
The UKHSA said around a third of Covid patients who are put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — a machine that takes over a patient’s heart and lung functions — are also infected with another virus.
And data released by Public Health England in 2020 — before vaccines were rolled out — showed those who caught Covid and flu were twice as likely to die.
But Professor Julian Tang, a virologist at Leicester University, told the Times that having both flu and Covid doesn’t necessarily mean people will become more unwell.
He said children can have up to four respiratory viruses at once, adding: ‘The idea of “flurona” is a bit overhyped.’
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist based at Reading University, told MailOnline there seems to be a ‘fairly low’ amount of flu circulating in the UK at the moment, so the risk of coinfection is ‘not currently high’.
But he warned: ‘Contracting both viruses simultaneously increases the risk of being seriously ill, but risks can be mitigated by getting vaccinated and boosted against both diseases.
‘Allowing increased numbers of either infection increases the risk of contracting both of them.
‘With testing for both viruses uncoupled as they are, the numbers of confirmed flu infections is probably a substantial underestimate and it is possible that the risk of dual infection is much greater than we realise.
‘I would be surprised if the current number of flu and Covid co-infections was below a thousand.’
And Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline coinfections from any respiratory viruses ‘are generally more severe’.
People who caught Covid and flu at the start of the pandemic were ‘roughly twice as likely’ to be hospitalised or admitted to intensive care compared to those who just had Covid, he said.
UKHSA data shows 81.4 per cent of over-65s came forward for their flu jab by the end of 2021. NHS England said this is the highest uptake ever recorded among the cohort, above the 80.9 per cent figure from last winter. Meanwhile, 49.2 per cent of under-65s in a clinical risk group and 37.1 per cent of pregnant women got the injection
Data from the UKHSA shows preschool vaccination rates are lower than 2020’s record uptake. Some 49 per cent of three-year olds and 46.6 per cent of two-year olds received the flu jabs so far this winter
Professor Hunter said: ‘There is also the problem for the NHS if it is having to deal with two pandemics simultaneously.’
There has not been a bad flu season for nearly two years, so ‘when it does come back it could be bad’, he added.
Despite coinfection with both viruses being recorded by UK health chiefs since the beginning of the pandemic, fresh concern around ‘flurona’ spread last week after Israeli health chiefs confirmed a young pregnant woman tested positive for both viruses in Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva.
Professor Arnon Vizhnitser, director of the hospitals’ Gynaecology Department, told local newspaper Hamodia: ‘She was diagnosed with the flu and coronavirus as soon as she arrived. Both tests came back positive, even after we checked again.’
‘The disease is the same disease. They’re viral and cause difficulty breathing since both attack the upper respiratory tract.’
The woman is expected to be discharged this week.
Vizhnitser added: ‘We are seeing more and more pregnant women with the flu. It is definitely a great challenge dealing with a woman who comes in with a fever at childbirth.
‘This is especially when you do not know if it’s coronavirus or the flu, so you refer to them the same. Most of the illness is respiratory.’
Two flurona cases were subsequently detected in the US. Medics at Texas Children’s Hospital on Monday confirmed a child was infected with both influenza and Covid.
And a second case was confirmed in a youngster in Brentwood, California on New Year’s Day. The boss of the testing firm that diagnosed the child said their symptoms were ‘very mild’ and could ‘easily be confused with sinusitis’.
Both children were recovering at home and neither had been admitted to hospital.
Dr Jim Versalovic, a pathologist-in-chief and Covid command centre co-leader at the Texas hospital said on Monday that medics across the US were working to identify more ‘flurona’ cases and determine if there is a pattern in infection.