BORIS Johnson has warned new variants post a “lethal danger” and could spark the worst Covid wave yet.
It includes the Indian strain which the PM said is “something we are increasingly concerned about in the UK”.
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Cases of the variant are growing at a rapid rate, already making up an estimated quarter of new cases.
Mr Johnson stressed the need for caution and vigilance as lockdown is eased, with the next step on May 17.
He said “the end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic”.
“The World Health Organisation has said that the pandemic has now reached its global peak and will last throughout this year,” Mr Johnson told the Commons today.
“Our own scientific advisers judge that although more positive data is coming in and the outlook is improving, there could still be another resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths.
“We also face the persistent threat of new variants and should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines, they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January.”
January was the worst stage of the UK’s outbreak, when daily deaths hit 1,820 and hospital occupancy 39,200.
The Indian variant, called B.1.617.2, is alarming due to its ability to spread fast.
Current evidence suggests that vaccines will work against severe disease at least to some degree, but this has not been studied intensely in real world populations.
It is based on the fact it has fewer “escape mutations” in its genetics which allow it to dodge antibodies in the blood.
The European Medicines Agency said today that it was “monitoring very closely the data on the Indian variant”.
But it said there was “promising evidence” that mRNA vaccines – the types those produced by Pfizer and Moderna – would be able to kill it.
Mr Johnson said even without the prospect of a deadly new variant which could escape vaccines, there was a “high likelihood” of a seasonal surge in coronavirus cases in the winter.
A third wave has been estimated by a range of scientific models, but estimates did not suggest this would put pressure on the NHS.
Sage estimates made earlier this year suggested a third wave could have killed more than 100,000 Brits.
But revised estimates, published by Sage on Monday, now show a much smaller 9,000 deaths in the “worst-case scenario”.
However, none of the models accounted for new variants that might emerge with the ability to dodge vaccines.
Echoing various experts, this week the Health Secretary admitted variants pose the biggest threat to lockdown easing.
Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast on Monday morning: “There is no doubt that a new variant is the biggest risk.
“We have this variant that was first seen in India – the so-called Indian variant – we have seen that grow.”
Scientists predict it could be up to 60 per cent more transmissible than the dominant Kent strain.
Tom Wenseleers, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Leuven, Belgium, said he and colleagues had analysed UK data from the Sanger Institute.
He wrote on Twitter: “A growth advantage of 10 per cent per day over the UK variant would amount to about 60 per cent more contagious. See if this is confirmed by further research.”
Public health officials said last week B.1.617.2 was “at least” as transmissible as the Kent variant, meaning it may compete with it.
But there are early indications it can spread with even more ease.
Professor Paul Hunter, from the Norwich School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it may be behind a slight uptick in UK cases.
He said: “Today [May 11] 2,427 new cases of Covid have been reported in the UK.
“That is a 27 per cent increase on the number of cases report last Tuesday and means that in the last seven days there have been 15,895 cases reported which is a 12 per cent increase on the previous seven-day period.
“This represents the largest week-on-week increase since early January.
“Looking at public data from the COG-UK website, which suggests an increasing proportion of the cases they sequence are the Indian variant B.1.617.2, this may suggest the increase in infections may be due to the spread of this variant.”
Some 520 cases of the Indian variant have already been confirmed, but this data is roughly a week old. The true figure could be several times higher by now.
COG-UK, the group of scientists who track the spread of variants, say 1,393 cases have been detected as of May 7.
Prof Hunter said provisional data showed “25 per cent of all positive samples they sequenced were this variant, up from about 13 per cent the previous week”.
Public Health England (PHE) data reveals that of cases genetically screened in London, 37 per cent were the Indian variant.
Prof Hunter said: “Fortunately as yet there is no sign that hospitalisations have started to increase in the UK.
“There has been a lot of debate about when and if a further wave of infection will happen in the UK.
“The reports of today suggest that this wave may have already begun.
“That hospitalisations have yet to increase would be consistent with the view that vaccine is still effective at reducing the risk of severe disease and gives hope that this new wave, if it indeed continues, will be less damaging to the NHS.”
The chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, said it was “possible it [B.1.617.2] is more transmissible but we’ll have to see”.
Talking to the Downing Street briefing on Monday, Prof Whitty said: “It has gone up very sharply and I think that’s a reason for us to be very careful about it.
“Of course we don’t know whether this is going to cause significant problems in the autumn.”
He agreed that the scientific view was that the Indian variant may not be as strong against vaccines as other variants, particularly that from South Africa.
Meanwhile, cases in some parts of England are surging as local leaders have pleaded for more action.
Erewash in Derbyshire has seen the largest growth in cases. It’s infection rate – new cases per 100,000 – is 201 compared with 21.7 a week prior.
It has the highest infection rate in the country.
Bolton has the second highest rate, up from 74.4 to 152 in one week, with 437 new cases diagnosed.
PHE has also noted Bolton as a hotspot for the Indian variant.