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Covid UK: Boris Johnson pledges ‘absolutely ruthless’ tracking of India’s coronavirus variant

India’s mutant coronavirus strain is now officially a ‘variant of concern’, British health chiefs announced today.

Public Health England say the variant — linked to an explosion of cases in India — is ‘at least’ as infectious as the current dominant Kent strain.

Cases of the variant, scientifically called B.1.617.2, have more than doubled in a week. It has now been spotted 520 times, with hotspots in Bolton and London.

Health officials are confident vaccines currently being used should still work against the variant but are carrying out urgent tests to be certain.

Scientists have grouped the Indian variant into three separate sub-strains, with type 2 quickly spreading in the UK. It has been found in schools, care homes and places of worship, it was reported today. 

The other two are genetically similar strains — B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.3 — and aren’t currently considered variants of concern. But PHE said their status will be kept ‘under constant review’.   

Despite being more infectious, health chiefs don’t believe the variant is deadlier than original coronavirus strains. 

The move to make the Indian variant one ‘of concern’ means officials can now put in place tougher measures to contain the strain, including ordering door-to-door tests and boosting contact tracing. All residents living in areas where the variant is spreading in the community will be asked to get a test, even if they don’t have symptoms. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today that tracking of the Indian variant will be ‘absolutely ruthless’. 

Celebrating the Tories delivering a hammer blow to the Labour’s Red Wall in the local elections, Mr 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.

‘At the moment we’re looking carefully at the way the Indian variant seems to function, we don’t see any evidence that it is resistant to the vaccines or in any way more dangerous.’

But an expert has warned the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of lockdown might be delayed because of outbreaks of the variant.

Dr Duncan Robinson, policy and strategy analytics academic at Loughborough University, today said a ‘political decision’ may be taken to slow down easing restrictions because the strain could disproportionately affect areas where there are outbreaks.

But speaking in Hartlepool today, Mr Johnson also said he ‘can’t see any reason’ to delay the remaining steps along the out of lockdown. 

Early research suggests both the AstraZeneca vaccine, known as Covishield in India, and the Pfizer jab, still work against the variant. 

Public Health England has divided the Indian variant into three sub-types because they aren’t identical. Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. It is not yet clear what separates Type 1 and 3 

Boris Johnson (pictured celebrating the Tories' by-election win on Jacksons Wharf with Hartlepool MP Jill Mortimer this morning) has pledged 'absolutely ruthless' tracking of India's mutant Covid strain after health chief today officially declared it a 'variant of concern'

Boris Johnson (pictured celebrating the Tories’ by-election win on Jacksons Wharf with Hartlepool MP Jill Mortimer this morning) has pledged ‘absolutely ruthless’ tracking of India’s mutant Covid strain after health chief today officially declared it a ‘variant of concern’

Data modelled by Professor Christina Pagel suggested the variants now account for 10 per cent of Covid cases in London, and between 5 and 7 per cent of cases in the South East and East Midlands

Data modelled by Professor Christina Pagel suggested the variants now account for 10 per cent of Covid cases in London, and between 5 and 7 per cent of cases in the South East and East Midlands

APRIL 17: In the most recent data, the variant – now split into three recognisable strains – has been found in dozens of areas and accounted for 2.4 per cent of all positive tests sampled

APRIL 17: In the most recent data, the variant – now split into three recognisable strains – has been found in dozens of areas and accounted for 2.4 per cent of all positive tests sampled

APRIL 3: Only a handful of places had the Indian variant present in swab samples at the start of April, when most were in Aylesbury Vale, Buckinghamshire

APRIL 10: By a week later the variant had spread to more areas and started to take off in London

Data on April 3 (left) show how just a handful of boroughs had spotted cases of the Indian variants. By a week later (right) the variant had spread to more areas and started to take off in London

It came as:

  • England’s coronavirus cases have halved in a month, the R rate is still below one, and the number of people in hospital has dropped below 1,000 for the first time since September, promising data revealed today;
  • Boris Johnson hailed an extraordinary Tory surge today as he visited Hartlepool to celebrate taking the rock-solid Labour seat for the first time in a by-election;
  • Labour leader Keir Starmer became a figure of ridicule this morning as he was subjected to an avalanche of memes urging him to stand down after party stronghold Hartlepool was won by the Tories;
  • Airlines gave their biggest hint yet that Portugal and Malta could be among the countries where British tourists can visit in less than a fortnight’s time without quarantining as they began adding flights to both destinations; 
  • Health officials announced Britons under 40 should be offered an alternative to the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine due to its link to rare blood clots; 
  • MailOnline revealed student areas in Nottingham, Manchester and Durham were the worst-hit places in England in the second wave of Covid with up to one in five people getting sick. 

Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s Covid strategic response director, said: ‘The way to limit the spread of all variants is the same and although we are all enjoying slightly more freedom, the virus is still with us. 

‘Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your nose and mouth when inside and keep buildings well ventilated and meet people from other households outside. 

‘If you are told to get a test, if you have any symptoms at all or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, please make sure you get tested too.’

She said the decision to upgrade B.1.617.2 to a ‘variant of concern’ was because data shows it is more transmissible.  

But PHE said there is currently no proof that any of the variants are deadlier or render the vaccines currently deployed any less effective. 

Urgent laboratory tests are being carried out to ‘better understand the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus’, the agency said.

It also revealed the majority of the cases being detected were in just two areas — the North West (mainly Bolton) and London. 

Nepal is now reporting 230 Covid cases per million, only narrowly behind India's 280 per million, though its healthcare system is even less able to handle the surge

Nepal is now reporting 230 Covid cases per million, only narrowly behind India’s 280 per million, though its healthcare system is even less able to handle the surge

Nepal army personnel wearing PPE load the body of a Covid victim into the back of an ambulance so they can be taken for cremation

Nepal army personnel wearing PPE load the body of a Covid victim into the back of an ambulance so they can be taken for cremation

Reflecting on the strain’s upgrade to ‘variant of concern’ on Twitter, Dr Robinson said: ‘A *political* decision will be made. Risk of Roadmap Step 3 is clear.

‘It would be prudent to delay the reopening to see how outbreaks spread or do not spread in the weeks ahead. Otherwise deprived, ethnic, urban communities may suffer disproportionately.’

But the Prime Minister today said: ‘I think it’s been very important for our country that we’re able to get through Covid as fast as we can. I think we’ve got to always bear in mind that this thing isn’t over.

Cases HALVE in a month to 46,000, R rate falls slightly and is still below one, and fewer than 1,000 patients are now in hospital for the first time since September 

England’s coronavirus cases have halved in a month, the R rate is still below one, and the number of people in hospital has dropped below 1,000 for the first time since September, promising data revealed today.

Just 46,000 people had coronavirus in England on any given day last week, or one in 1,180 people, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The figure was around 112,000 towards the start of April – and is down 15 per cent last Friday’s estimate. 

No10’s top scientists said the reproduction rate – which tracks the spread of the virus – was between 0.8 and 1.0, meaning the outbreak is still shrinking. This was down from 0.8 to 1.1 in the previous seven-day period.

Meanwhile, NHS figures show the number of infected patients in hospitals across England has dropped into three figures for the first time since the second wave spiralled out of control nine months ago. Daily admissions are now below 100. 

The data follows on from promising statistics from Public Health England and a symptom-tracking app yesterday, which showed the easing of restrictions on April 12 has not triggered any spike in the disease.  

Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to speed up his roadmap out of lockdown, with businesses and MPs warning that they risk suffering another lost summer if there are further delays. 

But the Prime Minister has refused to budge from plans to re-allow holidays and indoor hospitality from May 17, despite promising he would be led by ‘data not dates’.

 

‘I think the epidemiology is very encouraging at the moment but we’ve got to continue to be cautious, and we will continue with the cautious but irreversible steps of the road map. I can’t see any reason now to delay any of the steps that we’ve got ahead of us, but that’s going to be our programme.’ 

According to Channel 4 News, which last night revealed the variant would become one of concern, there have been at least 48 clusters of B.1.617.2. 

And internal PHE documents, dated to May 5 and seen by The Guardian, the ongoing risk to public health from the variant subtype B.1.617.2 is ‘high’. 

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told The Guardian that ‘at the current doubling rate (B.1.617.2) could easily become dominant in London by the end of May or early June’.

It comes as seven confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant were detected in Northern Ireland — the first discovered in the region.

The country’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the discovery was ‘not entirely unexpected’ and that plans were in place ‘for such an eventuality’.

Health experts have said they ‘haven’t seen any hint’ of a Covid variant that can fully evade the effectiveness of vaccines. 

The update comes after MailOnline revealed this week that the Indian Covid variants now make up one in 10 cases in London.

Data from the Sanger Institute, which analyses positive swabs for different variants, suggest the mutant strains spread widely during April.

Nationally the three different variants account for 2.4 per cent of all infections in the most recent week, ending April 17, up 12-fold from just 0.2 per cent at the end of March.

But the same figures suggest one in 10 cases in London were caused by the B.1.617 variants.

Data also showed the proportion ranged as high as 46 per cent in Lambeth and 36 per cent in Harrow – but the figures are based on tiny numbers of cases so clusters or super-spreading events have an amplified effect that may fade quickly.

Not much is known about the Indian variants, linked to an explosion of cases in India that has seen dead bodies spill out onto the street and mass cremations taking place in public car parks because hospitals have ran out of oxygen.

But one expert said the data — which doesn’t include travellers’ tests and is intended to be a snapshot of community infection rates — suggests it could be ‘outcompeting’ the Kent variant, which is dominant in the UK.

The proportion of cases being caused by the variants is rising whereas it would be expected to fall alongside the Kent variant if they were equally as fast-spreading. 

But it could also just be a coincidence that outbreaks were happening where the variants were present, said Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician at University College London and member of the Independent SAGE panel of experts.

There are too few cases in the UK to actually be able to tell anything about how the variants behave, Professor Pagel added, and not enough genetic testing in India.  

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANTS? 

Real name: B.1.617 — now divided into B.1.617.1; B.1.617.2; B.1.617.3

When and where was it discovered? 

The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021. 

But the first cases appear to date back to October 2020. 

Its presence in the UK was first announced by Public Health England on April 15. There have since been at least 400 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.  

What mutations does it have? 

It has 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China — but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.

Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants. 

PHE officials said it has split into three distinct virus types, with types 1 and 3 both having the E484Q mutation but type 2 missing the change, despite having all the other hallmarks of the variant. 

Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines? 

The L452R mutation is also found on the Californian variant (B.1.429), even though the two evolved independently. It is thought to make the American strain 20 per cent more infectious than the original Wuhan version – even with the extra 20 per cent it is likely slower than the Kent variant.

The E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.

The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness.  

Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines. Lab studies have suggested it may be able to escape some antibodies, but to what degree remains uncertain.

Early research suggests both the AstraZeneca vaccine, known as Covishield in India, and the Pfizer jab, still work against the variant, as well as India’s own jab, Covaxin. A paper published by SAGE last week suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants. 

How deadly is it? 

Scientists still don’t know for sure. But they are fairly certain it won’t be more deadly than the current variants in circulation in Britain.  

This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly. The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and mix with others for as long as possible to achieve this. 

And, if other variants are anything to go by, the Indian strain should not be more lethal.

There is still no conclusive evidence to show dominant versions like the Kent and South African variants are more deadly than the original Covid strain – even though they are highly transmissible. 

Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid admissions among people under 45, who have traditionally been less vulnerable to the disease.

There have been anecdotal reports from medics that young people make up two third of new patients in Delhi. In the southern IT hub of Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.

There is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain. 

Should we be worried? 

Scientists are unsure exactly how transmissible or vaccine-resistant the Indian variant is because it hasn’t been studied thoroughly.

The fact it appears to have increased infectivity should not pose an immediate threat to the UK’s situation because the current dominant Kent version appears equally or more transmissible. 

It will take a variant far more infectious strain than that to knock it off the top spot.

However, if the Indian version proves to be effective at slipping past vaccine-gained immunity, then its prevalence could rise in Britain as the immunisation programme squashes the Kent variant.

Why has B.1.617.2 been designated as a variant of concern?

Scientists believe this variant can spread more quickly than two other related variants seen in India.

It is thought to be at least as transmissible as the variant detected in Kent last year, known as B117, which is now dominant in the UK.

Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at PHE, said: ‘We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this VOC-21APR-02 is a more transmissible variant.’

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.

How many cases have been detected in the UK?

According to data by PHE released on Friday, there are, at present, 520 confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK, from 202 over the last week.

The report also showed 261 cases of B.1.617.1 and nine cases of B.1.617.3.

The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, and London.

PHE said around half of these cases are related to travel or contact with a traveller.

PHE health protection teams are working with local authorities, public health officials and NHS Test and Trace to detect cases and limit onward spread.

Surge testing is expected to be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission.

Is B16172 variant driving the second wave in India?

India reported 412,262 new Covid-19 cases and 3,980 Covid-19-related deaths on Thursday — both new single-day records.

In the past 30 days, the country has recorded 8.3million cases.

However, it remains unclear whether the new coronavirus variants are driving the second wave.

Experts say large gatherings, and lack of preventive measures such as mask-wearing or social distancing, are playing a key role in the spread of the virus.

Although India has the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, the country has partially or fully immunised less than 10 per cent of its 1.35billion people.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk