New coronavirus variant has triggered ‘explosive’ outbreaks in schools in London and the South East, says ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson as he warns the strain has likely spread all over Europe already
- Prof Ferguson said there’d been ‘anecdotal reports’ of ‘more explosive’ clusters
- Data has suggested children more susceptible to new, rapidly-spreading variant
- Also suggested every EU country had cases of strain, even though not detected
His comments come amid fears the mutant strain of the virus plaguing the capital and the commuter belt makes children more susceptible to Covid-19 infection.
Professor Ferguson – who quit SAGE after he was caught breaking social distancing rules to meet his married lover during Britain’s first lockdown – said there had been ‘anecdotal reports’ of ‘more explosive’ clusters in schools since November.
The Imperial College London epidemiologist, who still sits on the SAGE sub-groups NERVTAG and SPI-M, said it added to a growing body of data showing the new variant is making up an unusually large proportion of cases in children.
Children were very unlikely to get infected by previous strains of Covid – which was unusual because lots of viral infections like flu transmit more easily in youngsters –and it was extremely rare for someone under the age of 16 to develop symptoms
However, Professor Ferguson said the changes in the new variant may make children ‘more like adults’ in terms of how easy it is for the virus to infect and spread between them.
The scientist also warned the strain – believed to be up to 70 per cent more infectious than normal Covid – will already be circulating ‘in the vast majority, if not all’ European countries, despite only a handful confirming cases.
Experts say the variant was only spotted thanks to Britain’s world-leading genetic sequencing capabilities and would have likely been missed if it emerged in other nations.
The UK was made a continental pariah this week as EU countries shut their borders to British travellers in a bid to contain the spread of the variant.
There have been ‘explosive’ coronavirus outbreaks in London’s schools in recent weeks, ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson revealed today
Virus genetics experts said they will need to analyse data from thousands more cases of coronavirus caused by the new variant to be able to say whether it is more likely to infect children than previous versions of the virus (Pictured: Schoolchildren in Milton Keynes on December 1)
Professor Ferguson told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee today: ‘There are anecdotal reports that the last few weeks have seen more explosive school outbreaks in London and the South East of England, but they are just anecdotes at the moment.
But he added: ‘You see a statistically significant increased proportion of cases in under-15-year-olds for the variant compared to the non variant.
‘Beyond that we know nothing. There could be a number of hypotheses why that might be the case.
‘One of them is that maybe… children are more susceptible to this variant.
‘For previous strains of this virus we know children were less likely to get infected and certainly less likely to get symptoms than adults – which is unusual for a respiratory virus.
‘One possibility is this virus has changed in some way which doesn’t particularly target children, just makes children more like adults a little bit. Either in terms of symptoms or viral replication or transmission, or both.
‘But again this is very early days. We have very little direct biological, never mind experimental, evidence that that’s the case.
‘At the moment we have an observation that there’s a slight shift in the age distribution which would be consistent with any of those hypotheses.
‘But I would emphasise – while it is a significant shift, it’s not a huge shift. It’s relatively small.’
Professor Neil Ferguson told MPS the new strain of is ‘everywhere now’ in the UK and was probably already circulating in the ‘great majority, if not all European countries at the present time’.
But said he anticipated the impact of new Tier 4 restrictions and revised strict measures over Christmas elsewhere would have a beneficial impact on the UK’s crisis.
He said: ‘Schools are now shut, we are in a near-lockdown situation across the country. Contact rates are lower over Christmas.
‘I expect, though I hesitate to make any sort of predictions, we will see a flattening of the curve in the next two weeks. We will see at least a slowing of growth.
‘The critical question is what happens in January and the extent we want to make public health measures more uniform across the country if the new variant is everywhere.’