UK finds more cases of variant linked to severe second wave in India

Seventy-seven cases of a new variant linked to a surge in Covid-19 cases in India have been found in the UK, as the government seeks to fortify its defences against strains that may be able to evade existing vaccines.

The cases were reported by the government on Thursday evening, along with 56 new cases of the variant first identified in South Africa, taking the total confirmed cases since it was first detected in the UK to 600.

Earlier this week health authorities stepped up surge testing for the variant discovered in South Africa in four London boroughs, and on Friday extended it to areas in Birmingham and Sandwell.

The B.1.617 variant, first identified in India, is currently classified by UK health authorities as a “variant under investigation” not a “variant of concern”, like P.1 from Brazil and 501Y.V2 from South Africa, but worries have grown about the strain in recent weeks as the virus has spread rapidly across regions of India.

It was first detected in the UK on February 22, according to genomic sequencing databases in the UK, and some scientists are worried that it appears to be more infectious and more resistant to the body’s immune response than other variants that were in circulation in India. 

The country is suffering from a devastating second wave of Covid-19, with its caseload far surpassing last year’s pandemic peak and a vaccine rollout sputtering.

India is not currently on the UK’s “red list” for travel which requires visitors returning to Britain to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London and a member of Independent Sage, a group convened as an alternative to the government’s top scientific advisory group, called on the government to place India on the list.

The government on Friday said it was keeping the list “under constant review” and “won’t hesitate to introduce tougher restrictions and add countries if we think it is necessary”.

B.1.617 has two mutations around the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter human cells, although they are slightly different to the ones seen in P.1 and 501Y.V2.

The first mutation to the spike is called E484Q, which is different but in a similar location to a concerning mutation called E484K found in several variants of concern. Scientists are investigating whether this mutation has a similar impact on the virus’s ability to infect human hosts.

Downing Street said that despite the new variant outbreaks it remained confident in its road map for easing coronavirus restrictions in England. From April 12 pubs and restaurants with outdoor facilities have been permitted to reopen and personal care services such as hairdressers and nail salons allowed to start up again.

“The PM has said before that he sees nothing in the data to suggest that we can’t move at the pace that the road map has set out,” a spokesperson said. “We set out at the time, the four tests that we would continue to look at as we move through the road map.”

The latest coronavirus infection data is likely to bolster confidence in the government’s decision.

According to the weekly Office for National Statistics survey, coronavirus infections have dropped across all regions of the UK. In England, an estimated 112,600 people tested positive for Covid-19 in the week ending April 10, equating to about 1 in 480 people, down from 1 in 340 people the week before.

Rates of infection decreased in every age group except for secondary school children and those aged 50 to 69, where the trend was harder to ascertain.


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