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Indian Covid variant ‘poses a threat’ to UK’s lockdown-easing plans, expert warns

The Indian coronavirus variant could ‘pose a threat’ to Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, an expert warned today. 

It is feared the B.1.617 strain spreads more easily than older versions of the virus and scientists say it has mutations which may help it evade vaccines.

Professor Danny Altmann, an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could ‘still be caught out by variants like this’. 

Health officials warned yesterday that cases of people in the UK contracting the South African and Kent strains after being vaccinated have already been recorded. 

Public Health England says officially the Indian variant has been spotted 77 times in Scotland and England since March. But analysis of publicly available information on new variant numbers say cases have risen to 160, suggesting it’s spreading rapidly in the community.

PHE currently lists it as a ‘variant under investigation’, a tier below other troublesome strains including the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants.

But Professor Altmann told Good Morning Britain: ‘My assumption from everything I’ve seen is that it will become a variant of concern.’

He added: ‘I think our road map is going well and at the moment, in this country, we are doing rather well, enjoying unlocking – but out there there is the Indian variant, the South African, Brazilian etc, and they do pose a threat.’   

SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward backed calls for India to be put on the ‘red list’ to buy experts time to study the variant in more detail. 

The infectious disease expert urged the Government to ‘err on the side of caution and act sooner rather than later’. 

But top experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’. They questioned whether the strain actually is more transmissible than older versions, claiming the evidence was still murky.

It comes ass Boris Johnson today cancelled his trip to India amid surging coronavirus cases and alarm about the new variant.

The Covid variants circulating in the UK: Public Health England says officially the Indian variant has been spotted 77 times in Scotland and England since March

Professor Danny Altmann, an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could 'still be caught out by variants like this'

University College London's Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of SAGE, said India should be put on the red list

Professor Danny Altmann (left), an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could ‘still be caught out by variants like this’. SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward (right) backed calls for India to be put on the ‘red list’ to buy experts time to study the variant in more detail

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘This variant has a couple of mutations that are among those that we think are important that should be watched carefully.

‘But they’re actually probably not at the very kind of top tier of mutations, for example in the B.1.1.7 – or Kent variant – or the South African variant, that generate the most concern.’  

Dr Barnett said the rise of the Indian variant had happened at the same time India suffered a third wave, which may explain its higher prevalence. 

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.617

When and where was it discovered? The variant was first reported as being of concern by the Indian government in late March. The first cases appear to date back to October 2020. 

What mutations does it have? The two main mutations are named E484Q and L452R, which scientists suspect can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants. Those mutations are routinely not found on other variants monitored by Public Health England.

How many people in the UK have been infected with it? 77 people so far, according to a report published on April 15. Their locations are unknown.

‘In terms of spread, clearly this variant has increased in frequency in India around the same time as their very large and tragic recent wave.

‘But I just don’t think we know yet whether there’s a cause and effect relationship – is this variant driving that spread? 

‘Or is it happening at the same time perhaps due to a coincidence?’

He added: ‘And one thing to note is that there were some sequences of this variant B.1.617 seen late last year.   

‘And so in some sense, if it really is driving this wave, the fuse has been burning for quite a long time, which would make it look, probably less transmissible than B.1.1.7.’

The Indian variant was first spotted by scientists in March when it was described by the government in New Delhi as a ‘double mutant’.

They suggested that the variant had formed as a hybrid of two other strains and that it showed signs of being more infectious and less easily targeted by the immune system.

But scientists say there is ‘no evidence’ to suggest it is a ‘recombination variant’, when two strains merge. Instead, it is more likely to be another variant that randomly spawned.

Two key mutations set it apart from others – named E484Q and L452R – with both of them found on the ‘spike’ that the virus uses to latch onto human cells.

These are not thought to be key mutations of any of the other variants on Public Health England’s list, but have appeared in virus samples before. 

SAGE’s Professor Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London, backed calls for travel to India to be scrapped.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘It’s a balance of harms and benefits and the challenge with that is that the level of harm is quite high because we’re highly connected with India – there’s a lot of economic interaction as well as family and social interaction.

‘And on the other hand, what we have is an unknown level of risk – my own preference in all of this is to err on the side of caution and to act sooner rather than later. But ultimately, that’s going to be a political decision.’  

But Professor Hayward admitted scientists aren’t sure whether the variant is actually more infectious than older versions. 

He added: ‘The evidence of increased transmissibility and escape from immunity is circumstantial.

‘That said, it’s going to take a number of weeks at least before that evidence gets firmed up and we find out more.

Dr Susan Hopkins (pictured), chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, reassured that vaccines were a ‘primer’ for the immune system and would help reduce hospitalisations and deaths

Dr Susan Hopkins (pictured), chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, reassured that vaccines were a ‘primer’ for the immune system and would help reduce hospitalisations and deaths

Infections of South African and Kent coronavirus variants have already been recorded in vaccinated people 

Cases of people contracting the South African and Kent variants of the virus after being vaccinated have already been recorded, an NHS expert warned yesterday.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, reassured that vaccines were a ‘primer’ for the immune system and would help reduce hospitalisations and deaths.

But she said: ‘We have seen some people who have had their first dose of the vaccine who have had the South African variant and the variant that arose in Kent.

‘That’s to be expected, we know that these vaccines aren’t 100 per cent protecting you against infection and that’s why we ask people to take caution.’

She told BBC’s The Andrew Marr show: ‘You can see that [the vaccines are] not as good against the South African variant as they are against our own [variant] B117 at preventing infection and transmission.’

However, she added: ‘When your immune system is exposed to a variation of the same virus it responds faster and more adequately to protect you against severe disease.’ 

It comes as scientists in Brazil have identified two cases where people were simultaneously infected with two different variants of Covid-19, according to a study.

‘Certainly some countries and areas have taken the view that that’s enough for them to be quite concerned – so for example, Hong Kong has put on a two-week travel ban, which will allow them to find out a little bit more.’

PHE’s official variant list, which is updated weekly, says the Indian variant has been picked up 77 times in the UK.

But Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, analysed publicly available information on new variant numbers this Saturday and compared them to the previous Saturday and found that the number of genetically-confirmed cases had risen in a week from 79 to 160. 

Because only around a quarter of identified Covid cases undergo genomic sequencing to identify the strain, he feared the true figure was at least 400. 

It comes as an NHS expert warned yesterday that cases of people contracting the South African and Kent variants of the virus after being vaccinated have already been recorded.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, reassured that vaccines were a ‘primer’ for the immune system and would help reduce hospitalisations and deaths.

But she said: ‘We have seen some people who have had their first dose of the vaccine who have had the South African variant and the variant that arose in Kent.

‘That’s to be expected, we know that these vaccines aren’t 100 per cent protecting you against infection and that’s why we ask people to take caution.’

She told BBC’s The Andrew Marr show: ‘You can see that [the vaccines are] not as good against the South African variant as they are against our own [variant] B117 at preventing infection and transmission.’

However, she added: ‘When your immune system is exposed to a variation of the same virus it responds faster and more adequately to protect you against severe disease.’

It comes as scientists in Brazil have identified two cases where people were simultaneously infected with two different variants of Covid-19, according to a study

Both cases were women in their 30s who had typical moderate flu-like symptoms and did not become severely ill, according to the report in the journal Virus Research.

Earlier this month the Lancet also reported a case from Nevada where a man was infected by two different strains of the coronavirus – which is officially known as SARS-CoV-2. The second infection was more severe than the first.

The study authors warned: ‘Previous exposure to SARS-CoV-2 might not guarantee total immunity in all cases.’

Separately, Environment Secretary George Eustice said there is no evidence that the new Indian variant of coronavirus is able to ‘get around’ the vaccine. 

The Prime Minister today abandoned plans to travel to India amid surging Covid infections linked to the B.1.617 variant.

A joint statement from the UK and Indian government said the diplomatic trip, already scaled back, will not go ahead ‘in light of the current situation’. 

Mr Johnson had already pushed the trip back from earlier this year as a result of the UK’s third lockdown. Rather than several days of talks with Narendra Modi and high-profile events, it was only due to be a single day next weekend.

India last month blocked the shipment of 5million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine headed to Britain.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk