Indian COVID variant: UK holds emergency meeting

  • UK government could delay lockdown exit amid growing spread of the Indian variant
  • The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) holds emergency meeting
  • Surge vaccinations could be given to COVID hotspots
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a rise in Indian variant cases could delay lockdown lifting plans

In England, the prevalence of COVID-19 has dropped to approximately 1 in every 1000 person – levels not seen since August 2020.

There has been increasingly strong evidence that the UK’s vaccination programme has weakened the connection between coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths, with those catching the virus being asymptomatic or displaying mild symptoms.

According to recent research, the prevalence of COVID-19 is shrinking across the country, except the southeast, where cases are rising.

However, separate data has shown that the infection rate is twice as high in those from Asian backgrounds than white people, which may be partly due to scepticism over the vaccine’s safety.

There has also been growing concern over the Indian variant, which scientists believe is more transmissible and fatal than the Kent strain, responsible for the second wave of infections in the UK.

Coronavirus - COVID19

Indian COVID variant threatening to push infections back up in Britain

According to a symptom-tracking app, the infection rate in Britain has risen by 65% in the last seven days due to the rapidly spreading Indian variant.

A study conducted by the scientific research organisation ZOE and King’s College London found that nearly 3,000 Brits contracted the virus last week, up from 1,686 in the previous seven-day period.

Although the data revealed that Britain’s vaccine campaign had changed the game, with vaccinated participants only displaying mild symptoms of the virus, given that recent media coverage of India has been largely negative, many Britons are finding the news worrying.

It comes ahead of figures due to be released by Public Health England (PHE) on Thursday could reveal that the number of Indian COVID cases in Britain has tripled in the last seven days.

Separate data conducted by Imperial College London (ICL) found that the Indian variant of concern – known as B1617.2 – could be spreading faster than the Kent mutation in London.

ICL analysed more than 127,000 COVID tests as part of their broader React programme, with 115 from the sample returning positive and two identified as the variant of concern.

While the number is small, both people that tested positive for the Indian COVID variant said they had not travelled within the past two weeks, which has raised concerns over transmission.

Director of the React programme at ICL, Prof Paul Elliott, said: “Evidently, the variant of concern is spreading in England, at least in London and could be more transmissible than the Kent variant.”

Meanwhile, Professor Tom Wenseleers from the University of Leuven in Belgium, who worked closely with British scientists on the spread of the Kent strain, said India’s B1617.2 coronavirus variant could be 60% more infectious.

Prof Wenseleer added: “Given the exponential rise in cases across India, among cases exported from the country, and among cases without a travel history in the UK, the fact that in all these places B1617.2 outcompetes the Kent variant in terms of relative representation.”

While it will take more detailed epidemiological models and data to understand the virus, it may be more infectious, have an extended contagion period, and partly evade immune defences, said Prof Wenseleer.

After PHE designated B1617.2 as a “variant of concern”, scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) Committee said they would call an emergency meeting with government officials on Thursday to assess the threat.

UK scientists are also concerned about whether vaccines currently circulating would be ineffective against the new strain. They have also warned that a rise in Indian variant cases could delay lockdown lifting in the UK.

Research on indian variant reveals it could be highly contagious

COVID-19 at lowest levels but Indian variant could delay UK’s lockdown exit

Britain’s COVID infection rate has fallen to levels unseen since last summer. However, scientists suspect that ministers may have to delay the final stage of the government’s planned lockdown easing due to commence on June 21st if the UK sees a surge in the more infectious Indian variant.

Although the next round of lockdown easing, scheduled for May 17th, is full steam ahead, a member of the SAGE group told the i Paper that ministers might be forced to delay the fourth and final step of COVID lockdown easing.

Hours before SAGE held an emergency meeting, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also warned that Brits could experience even “greater suffering next winter than they endured this year if new COVID variants wash up onto our shores.”

According to the latest reports, scientists have identified 1,723 cases of the variant of concern, and although some of these could be duplicates, this would mean the infection rate would have tripled week on week.

India has three strains of the coronavirus, B1617.1, B1617.2 and B1617.3, but B1617.2 is the strain that health officials have designated as a “variant of concern” in the UK.

B1617.2 is believed to be spreading rapidly in the Bolton area of Greater Manchester, where enhanced testing and surge vaccinations are now taking place to protect members of the public.

There have also been reports of clusters in Blackburn, Lancashire and communities in parts of London.

In Blackburn, over 18s are now being offered coronavirus vaccines amid the spike in Indian COVID cases, with surge testing scheduled to begin next week.

The UK government has also said that local lockdown could be reintroduced in areas where the cases are spiralling to prevent a national crisis.

Lockdown lifting roadmap

Local lockdowns to be reintroduced in areas where the Indian variant is dominant

In a House of Commons address on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country is facing the threat of new coronavirus mutations, which could reverse Britain’s hard-won success if they prove highly contagious or resistant to vaccines.

The Prime Minister also warned that failure to tackle the variant quickly could trigger an exponential surge in hospitalisations and deaths.

When questioned about whether local lockdowns would be reintroduced, Mr Johnson explained: “We are considering all options as we want to make sure we grip it. There’s surge testing and surge tracing.”

“Currently, there is no reason to delay the unlocking of the economy on May 17th or June 21st. But there may be things we have to do locally, and we will not hesitate to do them if science advises.”

His comments come after new figures from NHS England suggest that more than 66% of 40 to 44 years-olds and 77.9% of adults aged 45 to 49 have been administered their first COVID jab.

The figures are even higher in older people, as the NHS believes that 89.8% of people aged between 50 and 54 and 95.5% of 55 to 59-year-olds have received at least one COVID shot.

Meanwhile, NHS England believes that 97.2% of people aged 60 and over have had their first dose.

Despite the success, University of Oxford Professor James Naismith stated that he could not say that the new Indian variant will not ramp up pressure on Britain’s vaccination campaign.

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