Another coronavirus strain is likely to be upgraded to a “variant of concern” after clusters of infections were found in several areas of England, it’s been reported.
Currently, there are four variants of concern in the UK – the so-called Kent, South Africa, Brazil and Bristol variants. But a newer strain from India is also on the rise.
There are thought to have been at least 48 clusters of cases linked to this particular variant, largely due to travel, with cases reported in schools, care homes and places of worship in the North West, London and East Midlands.
What is the Indian variant?
There are a few variants that originated in India doing the rounds, but one is causing more worry than others. The strain – B1617.2 – is one of three related variants that have been detected in the UK and have so far been designated “under investigation” by PHE. The others are B1617.1 and B1617.3.
Initial data suggests there were 202 cases of the B1617.2 variant, 193 confirmed cases of the B1617.1 variant, with 61 more cases confirmed since then, and five cases of the B1617.3 variant.
According to internal PHE documents, dated May 5 and seen by The Guardian, the ongoing risk to public health from the variant subtype B1617.2 is “high”.
All three variants are ‘under investigation’, however if B1617.2 is elevated to a variant of concern it would alter the plan of attack for keeping cases down.
PHE said updates on the number of cases due to be released have been delayed due to “processing issues”.
The most dominant variant in the UK is still the B117 variant (also known as the Kent variant). The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also monitoring the India variant, which was first discovered in October 2020. It is currently designated a ‘variant under investigation’ by the global health body.
What is a variant of concern?
There are around one to two mutations of SARS-CoV-2 per month, which means thousands of mutations have developed since the virus first emerged.
“Most of these mutations have no effect on the behaviour of the virus but occasionally a mutation occurs that alters how quickly the virus spreads, how infectious it might be or even the severity of the disease it causes,” says Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and expert in molecular oncology from Warwick Medical School. “It is then the virus becomes a variant of concern.”
Is the Indian variant more transmissible?
The BBC reported that scientists from PHE think, with “moderate confidence”, that this new Indian variant spreads as quickly as the Kent variant, which is about 50% more infectious.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told The Guardian “at the current doubling rate, [B1617.2] could easily become dominant in London by the end of May or early June”.
Seven cases of the B1617.2 variant have been detected in Northern Ireland. The country’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the news was “not entirely unexpected” and that plans were in place “for such an eventuality”.
Do the vaccines work against the variant?
There is no evidence so far that the B1617.2 variant can sidestep vaccine immunity and health experts have said they “haven’t seen any hint” of a current Covid variant that can fully evade the effectiveness of vaccines, which is promising.
What is being done to stop the Indian variant in the UK?
Currently, PHE is monitoring cases of the variant, however if it’s upgraded to a “variant of concern” – which reports suggest might happen on May 7 – surge testing could be rolled out in specific areas affected.