EXPERTS fear a new Indian variant could become the most dominant in the UK within a few weeks.
Cases of the strain have grown rapidly within just a few weeks, having been identified at least 752 times so far.
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Prof Paul Hunter, of the Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, is concerned about the speed of growth.
He told The Sun: “I am worried because I think it’s become clear in the last week or so that this variant is increasing quite rapidly.
“At this rate of growth it will only be three or four weeks before B.1.617.2 becomes dominant and case numbers in the UK start to surge again.”
Scientists at Public Health England (PHE) believe the variant is as least as transmissible as the variant detected in Kent last year.
The Kent variant, which overtook the “original” strain of coronavirus from China in a matter of weeks, led to the third lockdown in England.
Prof Hunter said: “People have said it's not more infectious than the Kent variant, but it's actually already out-competing it.
“The Kent variant is in steep decline – more than what's clear from the figures of case numbers.
“And at some point if this Indian variant continues to increase, we will probably see before the end of this month, if it continues, we will start seeing another surge in late May/early June, that will be predominantly the Indian [B.1.617.2] variant.
“But it's too early to be definite about that.”
Prof Hunter said the recent growth in cases may partly be due to a surge in travellers coming into the UK before India was formally on the “red list”.
He added: “Given we are still in a reasonably tight lockdown at the moment, and it seems to be spreading as quickly as it is, it does not bode well for the picture.
“It may all well fizzle out – these things happen. But ultimately this is at the moment looking the biggest threat to our continued easing of lockdown. But I'm not definite about that.”
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, also said the variant was “increasing very rapidly”.
She told the Guardian “at the current doubling rate it could easily become dominant in London by the end of May or early June”.
The B.1.617.2 variant is one of three from India found in the UK in April.
It was today labelled a “variant of concern” by PHE due to it having the ability to spread at least as fast as the Kent variant.
The other two variants – B.1.617.1 and 11 of B.1.617.3 – are a step below, catergorsied as “variants under investigation”.
B.1.617.2 has been detected 752 times up to May 1 by scientists at COG-UK who track Covid variants.
But in an update today, PHE has only listed 520 on the Government website as of April 28.
Due to a time lag in how quickly scientists can track variants, cases of the Indian variant may be several times higher already.
In the past 28 days, the variant has accounted for more than three per cent of Covid cases.
Although it is a tiny proportion, it is that speed at which this variant has grown that is concerning experts.
For comparison, the South African variant has accounted for 0.8 per cent of cases and was first detected in December 2020.
Provisional data up to May 1 – which can change as more information is analysed by COG-UK – suggests 18 per cent of cases in the UK in the week ending May 1 were caused by B.1.617.2.
PHE said health protection teams are working with local authorities, public health officials and NHS Test and Trace to detect cases and limit onward spread.
Where are cases highest?
A breakdown of where cases of the Indian variant B.1.617.2 are across the UK is only available to April 24. It comprises only 167 cases.
Bolton in Greater Manchester has flagged the highest number of infections, at 28. Following is Leicester with 16 and Harrow with 11.
Weekly government data shows that Bolton in Greater Manchester had the second highest Covid-19 case rate in England for the seven days to May 2, up from 48.0 to 85.2.
At least ten cases of this variant have also been reported in Aylesbury Vale, Buckinghamshire, and Nottingham.
According to data by PHE released on Friday, there are, at present, 520 confirmed cases of the B16172 variant in the UK, from 202 over the last week.
The report also showed 261 cases of B16171 and nine cases of B16173.
Data from PHE on Friday shows the majority of cases are in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, and London.
Do vaccines work against it?
The B.1.617.2 variant could evade immunity built from either infection or vaccination because like any variant, it has new mutations.
This could derail the vaccine programme in the UK.
But PHE said there is currently “insufficient evidence” to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India cause more severe disease or make the vaccines available any less effective.
It appears B.1.617.2 does not have the worrying mutation E484Q, an antibody escaping mutation that the other Indian variants have.
The Prime Minister also said “we don’t see any evidence that it is resistant to the vaccines or in any way more dangerous”.
He added that tracking of the Indian variant was “absolutely ruthless”.
Boris Johnson told reporters: “What we’re doing there is making sure that we are absolutely ruthless in the surge testing, in the door-to-door tracking of any contacts.”
It comes after the Guardian reported that some cases had been identified in vaccinated people living in care homes.
According to leaked data, 15 cases were found in one care home resulting in four hospitalisations but no deaths so far.
“That’s concerning,” Prof Hunter said. “But maybe the residents had not had it [their second doses] long enough for the additional benefit of the second dose to kick in.
“The second Indian variant is probably not more resistant than the South African variant, so vaccines will still have an important role.
“Also news reports from India, though anecdotal, suggest that people who have had vaccine are not getting as sick as people who have not.
“But this rapid spread in the UK is occurring at a time when we are still in a reasonably tight lockdown and over 50 per cent of us have had at least one dose of the vaccine.”
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