India Covid variant found in UK specimens taken in February


The first of the 77 cases of the India variant of coronavirus found in the UK were detected in specimens dating back to February, the Guardian has learned.

On Thursday Public Health England (PHE) revealed that 77 cases of a variant first detected in India, called B.1.617, had been found in the UK, with 73 cases in England and four in Scotland.

It is designated a “variant under investigation” but is worrying researchers as it contains two mutations that it is thought may help the virus to evade the body’s immune responses. There are also concerns the variant might be more infectious than early forms of Covid-19.

Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said that while there was yet to be proof to support such worries, there was anecdotal evidence from India.

“I think it’s fair to say that this is a candidate for becoming a variant of concern pretty soon,” he said.

Analysis of the Covid-19 genomics UK consortium database reveals that the first specimens found to contain the India variant date back to 22 February. The number of specimens containing the variant has been rising week on week – despite the UK having been under tight restrictions until 12 April. While 13 specimens dating to the week ending 13 March were found to contain the India variant, there were 30 such specimens dating to the week ending 3 April.

The UK is considered to have one of the world’s best Covid surveillance programmes. However, not all positive tests are subsequently analysed to determine which variant is present.

The Guardian understands that the PHE report only includes a particular variant once experts believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest it is potentially worrying – not when the variant is first noticed.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the delay was understandable, and that action could be taken until it was clear there was a problem.

“It can take up to four weeks for new positives to be sent for sequencing and be sequenced. But even after you have found [a new variant], it can take time ito work out whether it is likely to be important or not. There are already a vast number of different lineages being identified, so working out which ones to worry about takes time,” he said.

However, Prof Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operational research unit at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, said the situation is of concern.

“I would have expected this [variant] to appear in reports by the end of March when it became clear that this was a potentially worrying variant in India,” she said.

Pagel also said there was as yet no direct proof that B1617 was more infectious or could escape immunity – either through prior Covid infection or vaccination – but said nonetheless swift action was needed.

“I’m not sure we’ll get that proof until potentially it is too late to stop it spreading in the UK, unless we start trying to contain it right now as we are for the [South Africa] variant,” she said.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics found that the percentage of people testing positive for Covid overall had decreased in all four nations of the UK in the week ending 10 April, with an estimated one in 480 people in the community in England thought to have had the disease that week, compared with one in 340 the week before.

However, surge testing – which can include door-to-door tests and enhanced contact tracing even for those without symptoms – is under way in several parts of London and elsewhere in the UK in a bid to prevent the spread of the variant that was first detected in South Africa, as well as other variants of concern.

At present, it is not used for variants under investigation – though the Guardian understands this is being kept under close review.

“I think given how much we are relying on our vaccination programme to open up, we absolutely should err on the side of caution and do what we can to stop this variant spreading further,” said Pagel.



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