A NEW Covid variant from India is spreading at an alarming rate in the UK, putting lockdown easing at risk.
Some parts are more affected than others, leaving millions of Brits with questions about what its emergence means.
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The good news is, there is confidence that fully vaccinated people will have a decent level of protection against disease caused by the variant.
But those unvaccinated, or with only one dose, are more at risk.
Cases are in relatively small numbers on a national scale, but it’s the rapid growth that is of concern.
There are fears more cases will lead to hospitalisations, putting pressure on the NHS.
So what do we know about the variant, named B.1.617.2?
Where are cases highest?
Public Health England (PHE) reports there are almost 3,500 cases in the UK, of which 3,245 are in England.
The data is up to May 19. More recent data from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the true number is double that, at 6,431. Although this is a preliminary number.
The true numbers are likely higher because only around half of positive test swabs are screened to see which variant they are caused by.
In England, infections are spread across the country, but there are clear hotspots.
Bolton, Sefton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford have been labelled as areas of concern.
The rapidly-spreading mutated virus has finally overtaken the Kent strain which forced England into the third national lockdown in January.
PHE said 53.8 per cent of infections in mid-May had the “S gene” — a tell-tale sign of the Indian variant, named B.1.617.2.
COG-UK said it was behind 49.6 per cent of cases since May 16, compared to 43.7 per cent attributed to the Kent variant.
Data from the Sanger Institute shows the Indian variant has become dominant in 43 areas, but cases are not necessarily high in these places.
It accounts for more than half of all positive test results in Rushmoor, Sefton, Ribble Valley, Dartford and parts of Oxfordshire.
The variant is also dominant in several London boroughs – Croydon, Hillingdon, Camden, Barnet, Havering, Greenwich, Barking and Dagenham and Bromley.
In Scotland, where 136 cases have been identified, it’s feared B.1.617.2 has caused a spike in coronavirus infections in Glasgow.
First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said officials “decided to hold back” on relaxing some lockdown restrictions, with at least 28 cases found in the nation.
What are the symptoms?
There is no evidence that symptoms of B.1.617.2 are any different to the original ones, including a new, persistent cough, high temperature and loss of taste and smell.
Scientists also have no evidence at this point it cases more severe disease.
People who have received one or two doses of a vaccine have been warned they may show very little or zero symptoms as the jab appears to make infection more mild.
Who is most affected?
Cases are predominantly in younger people, public health officials say.
Those under the age of 32 are still waiting to be invited for their first dose.
Prof Andrew Pollard, of the Oxford Vaccine Group who led trials of the AstraZeneca vaccine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “If you’re unvaccinated, then the virus will eventually find those individuals in the population who are unvaccinated.
“And of course if you’re over 50 and unvaccinated, you’re at much greater risk of severe disease.”
Professor Christina Pagel, Clinical Operational Research Unit (CORU) at University College London (UCL), said: “Cases in most places are concentrated in school age children and young adults who haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated yet.
“It’s now spreading through the community far beyond its original travel cases.”
Adam Briggs, a senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said on Twitter: “This is related to deprivation, multiple occupancy & multigen housing, and job insecurity – and also overlaps with differential vaccination uptake.”
Another expert has said “deprived, ethnic, urban communities may suffer disproportionately” from the Indian variant.
Uptake of the jab has been lowest among those of ethnic minority, and the coronavirus spreads faster in poorer and more crowded areas.
Mr Hancock has said the “vast majority” of people who had been hospitalised with Covid in areas with high Indian variant rates had not taken up the offer of a vaccine.
Why is the Indian variant a concern?
Sage – the scientists that advise Government – believe the Indian variant could be up to 50 per cent more easily spread than the strain from Kent.
The Kent variant put England back into a third national lockdown because it spread so much faster than the original strain from Wuhan, China.
Therefore, the Indian variant threatens freedoms, even though the UK has a successful vaccination programme.
It could infect those who are unvaccinated – currently a third of the population – or vulnerable people who have not been able to get the jab or for whom the jab does not work for.
But Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said it was likely to be only around 25 per cent more transmissible, meaning the NHS should be able to cope with the predicted surge in cases.
PHE released a report on May 22 revealing the Indian variant had a higher secondary attack rate than the Kent one.
It means more contacts of those infected also end up with the disease.
Will vaccines work against it?
Yes, but they are slightly weakened against it.
Data from PHE revealed one dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca jab was 33 per cent effective against Covid disease from the Indian variant.
This compared to 50 per cent against the Kent strain, which had been dominant in the UK for several months.
Two doses of the Pfizer jab gave 88 per cent protection, while two doses of the AstraZeneca jab gave 60 per cent protection against the Indian strain.
But against the Kent strain, two doses of the jabs are 93 per cent and 66 per cent effective, respectively.
PHE’s risk assessment of the Indian variant’s ability to weaken vaccine efficacy had escalated to “high” on the back of the data.
But the Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the findings as “groundbreaking”.
He said “we can now be confident” that more than one in three fully jabbed brits have “significant protection” against the Indian variant.
Scientists said the key message was that it was imperative people got two doses of the jab when invited to protect themselves against the Indian variant.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the Nervtag group advising the Government, said “a single dose is not particularly protective” against the Indian variant.
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, appeared to be right in saying it wasn’t likely the Indian variant will weaken vaccine efficacy as much as the South African one.
Does it threaten the lockdown easing?
Boris Johnson has warned that step four of England’s road map on June is in jeopardy.
But he went ahead with lifting restrictions in England on May 17, allowing mixing indoors at pubs and restaurants.
The Prime Minister said on May 20 there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a deviation from the road map, considering vaccines appear to work against it.
Later, his spokesperson said ministers would want to see more information before making decisions on the next steps.
It came after some scientists said unlocking should be delayed given the prevalence of the Indian variant.
New variants are one of the four crucial pieces of information to decide whether to progress with unlocking, and some say they have ignored the Indian variant.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said: “I can’t possibly imagine anything more concerning than a variant that we don’t know anything about in terms of vaccine efficacy and transmissibility that’s increased…
“If this is not a point of concern and a point of reconsidering easing restrictions, I don’t know what would be.”
Will local lockdowns be used?
There has been uproar after the Government snuck in restrictions “through the back door” for the most affected areas – Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
The pubic have been ordered not to travel in and out of eight Indian variant hotspots or mix socially indoors.
But incredibly local leaders and MPs weren’t even told about the changes, which were dumped on the Government website last Friday evening.
There was no public announcement, and they didn’t find out until last night when journalists started to flag the new guidance.
The change in the rules effectively partially scraps the latest round of unlocking for people in the hotspots.
It came after the Prime Minister said on May 13: “There may be things that we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.”
What is being done to slow the spread?
Now that the Indian variant is considered one of concern, surge testing is being used to find more cases.
Hampshire is the latest location to be added to a testing blitz which has reached hotspots as well as parts of London and the North West.
Meanwhile, the gap between first and second jabs will be cut down to eight weeks from the original twelve.
This is to ensure the most vulnerable have the fullest protection as soon as possible to help avoid hospitalisations.
The PM said: “We will accelerate remaining second doses, especially for the clinically vulnerable, right across the country, to just eight weeks after the first date.
“And if you are in this group the NHS, will be in touch with you. We will also prioritise first jabs for anyone eligible who has not yet come forward.”
People in the most affected areas are being encouraged to get their jabs urgently if they are eligible, with new vaccination hubs being set up.
What are the other Indian variants?
There are in fact three variants that are from India that emerged in the UK around mid-April.
These are B.1.617, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3.
The first and third variants are only listed as “under investigation”, rather than “of concern” like B.1.617.2.
Although they have been shown to have “escape mutations”, they have not grown in cases very quickly.