Britain’s coronavirus cases have risen by 65 per cent in a week amid the rapid spread of the Indian variant, a symptom-tracking app warned today.
The ZOE and King’s College London study estimated 2,800 Britons were being infected with the virus every day last week, up from 1,686 in the previous seven-day spell.
But one of the experts behind the surveillance project claimed the ‘game has changed’ because of vaccines, with data showing jabbed participants who catch the virus often only experience a mild form of the disease.
Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the ZOE Covid study, said: ‘While the increase in cases this week is likely to be real, the overall numbers are still just a fraction of what they were at the height of the pandemic. Increases of this size are to be expected with changes in social behaviour as restrictions ease.
‘We are also seeing milder forms of Covid within vaccinated groups and younger people presenting with much less respiratory problems than previously.’
Test and Trace data released today showed the number of people testing positive for Covid fell nine per cent last week, to 14,300.
It comes as SAGE scientists were called to an emergency meeting today because of rising cases of the Indian variant, which reports suggest has spiked three-fold in a week.
Surveillance data shows it is already dominant in Bolton and Blackburn, where infections have doubled in the last seven days. Testing figures also show it is behind half of all Covid infections in Bedford, South Northamptonshire and Sefton in Merseyside. Cases are also increasing in London.
Boris Johnson admitted he was ‘anxious’ about the Indian variant spreading rapidly in the UK and warned the Government would ‘rule nothing out’ in its effort to contain it.
But the Prime Minister said: ‘At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.’
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly claimed officials were waiting on the assessments of No10’s top scientific advisers before deciding if longer restrictions are needed. One expert on SAGE told The i newspaper that a delay to the June 21 unlocking ‘is possible’.
The Government was criticised for being ‘weeks too late’ with enforcing its travel ban on India, which only came into force in late April — despite officials knowing about the variant for weeks. The move allowed thousands of travellers from coronavirus-stricken India to pour into the UK.
Studies suggest the variant — first detected in Britain in February — may be 60 per cent more transmissible than the highly infectious Kent version (B.1.1.7) that triggered the UK’s raging second wave. But experts have no reason to believe it evades vaccines and reports from India suggest it still protects against severe illness.
While only pockets of the country are being impacted at present, scientists have warned against tiered localised lockdowns and said the variant should be viewed as a national problem.
The ZOE Covid Symptom Study app found the number of symptomatic Covid cases caught a day had risen by 65 per cent in a week to 2,800. But they said any infections in vaccinated people tended to be milder
Test and Trace data showed the number of Covid cases transferred to the system had fallen by nine per cent compared to last week at 14,300. But this was a much smaller drop than in previous weeks
An emergency meeting will be held by experts at the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee today after it was found that India’s Covid variant is now dominant in five local authorities in England. There are mounting concerns that it is more infectious than the currently dominant Kent strain
How Bolton’s rising infection rate has been triggered by the Indian variant: Public Health England data shows the strain is making up almost 70 per cent of new cases in the Greater Manchester town after its prevalence doubled a month
Public Health England has divided the Indian variant into three sub-types. 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. Type 1 and 3 have a slightly different set of mutations. The graphic shows all the different variants that have been spotted in Britain
Boris Johnson (visiting a primary school in County Durham today) admitted he was ‘anxious’ about the Indian variant spreading rapidly in the UK and warned the Government would ‘rule nothing out’ in its effort to contain it
Surveillance data shows it is already dominant in Bolton and Blackburn, where infections have doubled in the last seven days. Pictured, a sign urging people to get tested in Bolton town centre
The ZOE Covid Symptom study relies on reports from more than 700,000 Britons on whether they are suffering Covid symptoms and have tested positive for the virus to model its spread through the country.
Statisticians behind the app updated their methodology this week because most of their participants had been vaccinated (80 per cent), compared to almost 68 per cent in the population.
They said their study includes 80,000 Britons who have not been vaccinated, and more than 600,000 that have already received at least one dose. The majority of participants are aged between 40 and 60.
Their study can only pick out symptomatic Covid infections, but misses those that do not spark any warning signs. Official estimates suggest these could account for up to a third of all cases.
Professor Spector said: ‘In light of the huge success of the vaccine roll out it was essential that we addressed our methodology.
‘We have a disproportionately high number of vaccinated individuals among our contributors so we’ve adjusted our figures to better reflect the rate of vaccination in the UK population.’
A spokeswoman said they spotted the issue when their estimates were consistently lower than those from other studies.
Results also revealed Britons who caught Covid after they were vaccinated tended to experience a milder disease.
More than 50 per cent of respondents who tested positive after getting their first dose said they did not have any of the ‘classic’ symptoms – a high temperature, cough and loss of smell and taste. This rose to 76 per cent among those who had both shots.
For comparison, only 30 per cent of un-vaccinated contributors who tested positive for the virus said they did not have any common symptoms of the disease.
Data also revealed that fully vaccinated people only reported up to one distinct Covid symptom within the first week of infection, compared to an average of five among those who were yet to be jabbed.
Professor Spector added: ‘Given the reported rise in daily new cases this week, it is reassuring that we’re seeing much milder infections than those seen prior to the vaccine roll out.
‘The majority of vaccinated people, when infected, don’t experience classic respiratory problems and experience fewer symptoms overall, which means rising infections have not yet resulted in an increase in hospitalisations or deaths and pressure on the NHS.
‘This is a signal that the game has changed, with vaccines allowing us to live much more normal lives in a world with Covid.’
Vaccines in use in the UK — AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna — are up to 97 per cent effective at stopping severe disease and death among those who receive both doses. And they are at least 70 per cent effective at stopping infections occurring following the jabs.
More than 35.7million Britons, or two in three adults, have been vaccinated against Covid. The NHS expanded the roll-out to include people aged 38 and 39 today, as it moves down the age groups.
Data show that seven out of England’s 10 Covid hotspots (inset) are in the North of England with three in the Midlands (Erewash, Bedford and North Lincolnshire), while the places where positive tests are rising fastest are scattered across the country
Professor James Naismith (left), a structural biologist at Oxford University, claimed the strain will eventually ‘get everywhere’ as the Kent variant did when it emerged in the South East last autumn. Striking a more optimistic tone, SAGE adviser Professor Steven Riley (right), from Imperial College London, told Times Radio there was a need to keep an eye on variants but suggested the UK was currently in a good place
This map shows the spread of the Indian variant across the UK in the week ending April 24. It is focused in key hotspots, and around Greater London
Public Health England data show how infection rates have been rising for the past fortnight in some areas of the North West and central England
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIAN VARIANTS?
Real name: B.1.617 — now divided into B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and 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 520 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.
What mutations does it have?
It has at least 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China. The two main ones are named E484Q and L452R, although the most common version in Britain (.2) does not have E484Q.
Scientists suspect L425R can help it to transmit faster and E484Q helps it get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
There is also a mutation called T478K but researchers don’t yet know what it does.
Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?
Research is ongoing but British scientists currently believe it spreads at least as fast as the Kent variant and potentially faster, but it is unlikely to slip past vaccine immunity.
SAGE advisers said in a meeting last week: ‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 [Kent] variant.’
Dr Susan Hopkins, a boss at Public Health England, 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 is a more transmissible variant.’
Expectations are that the current Covid vaccines will still protect people against the Indian variants.
Early research by the Gupta Lab at Cambridge University found there was a small reduction in vaccine effectiveness on the original Indian variant, but it found the jabs worked better against it than they did on the South African strain. The team have not yet tested the .2 strain, which is the most common in the UK.
A paper published by SAGE advisers recently suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants, and it is likely the others will provide very strong defence against severe illness, even if there is a risk of reinfection.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines.
How deadly is it?
Professor Peacock said: ‘There isn’t any evidence that this causes more severe disease. There’s just not enough data at the moment.’
Scientists say it is unlikely that the variant will be significantly more dangerous than the Kent strain.
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.
Although there have been claims that the Kent variant is more deadly than the virus it replaced – the Government claimed it was around 30 per cent – there is still no conclusive evidence to show any one version of Covid is worse than another.
Is the variant affecting children and young adults more seriously?
Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid hospital 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 Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.
But this could be completely circumstantial – older people are more likely to shield themselves or to have been vaccinated – and there is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain.
The risk of children getting ill with Covid is still almost non-existent.
Why is it a ‘variant of concern’ and should we be worried?
Public Health England listed the variant as ‘of concern’ because cases are growing rapidly and it appears to be equally infectious – or potentially even more – than other strains in Britain.
Last time a faster-spreading variant was discovered it caused chaos because the outbreak exploded and hospitals came close to breaking point in January, with almost 50,000 people dying in the second wave.
But there is currently no reason to be alarmed. Scientists believe our current vaccines will still work against the variant, preventing people from getting seriously ill or dying in huge numbers.
If it spreads faster than Kent it could make it harder to contain and make the third wave bigger, increasing the number of hospital admissions and deaths among people who don’t get vaccinated or for whom vaccines don’t work, but the jabs should take the edge off for the majority of people.
A vaccine that can make vaccinated people very sick en masse would be a real crisis for Britain and could ’cause even greater suffering than we endured in January’, Boris Johnson warned today – but there are not yet any signs the Indian variant will be the one to do this.
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 someone who has been abroad.
Surge testing is expected to be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission.
Is B.1.617.2 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.
It comes as the PM today admitted he was ‘anxious’ about the Indian variant spreading rapidly in the UK and warned the Government would ‘rule nothing out’ in its effort to contain it.
Mr Johnson claimed that England’s lockdown-easing plans were still on track – despite cases of the B.1.617.2 strain tripling nationally in a week – but hinted that localised restrictions could be reimposed.
During a visit to a primary school in County Durham today, he said: ‘It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it. There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it.
‘Obviously there’s surge testing, there’s surge tracing. If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out. We have always been clear we would be led by the data.
‘At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.’
It came as a cross-party group of MPs and families living in hotspots currently grappling the new variant slammed No10 for taking too long to ban travel from India.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus said a ‘failure to act swiftly enough’ had propelled the spread of the highly-infectious strain, which they warned could undo the success of the jab rollout and winter lockdown.
Ministers only added India to the ‘red list’ in late April, despite the country suffering a devastating second wave and UK officials knowing about the B.1.617.2 variant for weeks. The delay saw thousands of travellers from the coronavirus-stricken nation flood into the UK.
A Bolton woman whose family originate from India told MailOnline the Government was ‘to blame’ for an outbreak of the strain in the Greater Manchester town and rapidly rising case numbers nationally. Rukhsana Shaikh, 49, said she personally knows of dozens of fellow Bolton residents who arrived back in the town from India just days before travel was restricted.
The Indian variant is already dominant in Bolton and Blackburn, where cases have doubled in the last seven days, and its prevalence has tripled nationally in a week.
SAGE will today convene an emergency meeting to decide whether restrictions will need to remain in place for longer to contain its spread.
Studies suggest the variant — first detected in Britain in February — may be 60 per cent more transmissible than the highly infectious Kent version (B.1.1.7) that triggered the UK’s raging second wave.
But experts have no reason to believe it evades vaccines and reports from India suggest it still protects against severe illness.
SAGE will analyse the latest evidence on the Indian B.1.617.2 variant from the UK and around the world during its meeting today. One expert on the panel told The i newspaper that a delay to the June 21 unlocking ‘is possible’.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly claimed officials were waiting on the assessments of No10’s top scientific advisers before deciding if longer restrictions are needed.
Environment Secretary George Eustice yesterday refused to rule out local lockdowns from next month when the national restrictions are expected to end.
Testing figures show the new variant is behind half of all Covid infections in Bedford, South Northamptonshire and Sefton in Merseyside. Cases are also increasing in London.
And Public Health England is expected to announce today that domestic cases of the Indian variant have more than tripled in a week, with the figure expected to be in the region of 1,700.
Ms Shaikh told MailOnline the blame for the outbreak of the variant lay firmly at the feet of ministers.
‘Bolton has a very large community of people with Indian origins like me. And they were frequently travelling back and forth to the country right up until the moment India was placed on the red list,’ she added.
‘The UK Government should have got its act together and if you ask me, they’re to blame for the Indian variant being in this country. The coronavirus situation in India started getting bad in March but there were people from Bolton who were still travelling there.
‘They were coming back after about two or three weeks, returning to work and their kids went back to school. Look at the situation now in India and it’s madness that our Government didn’t’ stop people from travelling there much earlier.’
While only pockets of the country are being impacted at present, scientists have warned against tiered localised lockdowns and said the variant should be viewed as a national problem.
Professor James Naismith, a biologist at Oxford University, claimed the strain will eventually ‘get everywhere’ as the Kent variant did when it emerged in the South East last autumn. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘I think we should view it as a country-wide problem. It will get everywhere.
‘We keep learning this lesson, but we know that this will be the case. When we tried locally having different restrictions in different regions that didn’t really make any difference. So I don’t think thinking about a localised strategy for containment will really work.’
Striking a more optimistic tone, No10 adviser Professor Steven Riley, from Imperial College London, told Times Radio there was a need to keep an eye on variants but suggested the UK was currently in a good place thanks to how effective the vaccines were.
Asked if the Indian Covid variant could ‘frustrate’ the vaccine programme, Professor Naismith said not enough was known to say for sure.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The vaccines don’t 100 per cent prevent infection for people. What they do, is they almost 100 per cent prevent hospitalisation and serious illness.
‘We don’t know enough to know yet whether the Indian strain will behave differently than that.
‘So even the regular virus can infect people who have been vaccinated and sometimes you do get reinfection. And the very, very large number of cases in India mean things that are rare will be detected.’
It came after the environment secretary yesterday said the Government ‘can’t rule anything out’ when it comes to localised lockdowns and trying to get on top of the Indian variant.
He told Sky News: ‘We want to try and avoid having to get into a tiered system and regionalisation, we tried that last autumn and in the end we had to go for full lockdown.
‘But there is always a risk and the greatest risk we have is a new variant that will come in that the vaccine is less effective against it.’
Quizzed about the lockdown-easing timetable, SAGE’s Professor Riley told Times Radio it would be a political decision but suggested the vaccines would prevent rising infections turning into a wave of hospitalisations.
He added: ‘Whether the restrictions run on a timetable is a Government decision and it’s just not useful to try and speculate what they will do.’
ONS figures show that the proportion of people testing positive for coronavirus antibodies increases with age, with an average of 92.3 per cent of over-65s showing signs of immunity. [Dark blue line shows antibody positive rate, green line shows estimate of how many people have had their first vaccine dose and light blue is second vaccine doses]
Charts show how the high levels of antibodies seen in the UK’s oldest populations are being caught up by younger people as the vaccine rollout extends to lower age groups.