Known as B1.617.2, the variant has driven numerous outbreaks, including in Bolton and London, and is now feared to be circulating on a community level in some parts of the country.
There is confidence among experts that the current generation of vaccines will be able to neutralise B1.617.2 – though its high transmissibility has sparked concern within No 10, which has called an urgent meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Sage is to discuss the spread of the variant, amid fears it could disrupt the UK’s road map out of lockdown, while Downing Street has said the idea of surge vaccinations is being considered.
Two scientific advisers to the government, speaking in a personal capacity, told The Independent that targeted vaccinations could help to slow down rising transmission rates and bring the situation under control – a strategy that other experts have thrown their support behind.
“Overall this strategy makes sense,” said Kamlesh Khunti, a professor of vascular medicine at Leicester University and Sage member.
“There are areas we’re already doing surge testing for, so it makes sense to introduce targeted vaccinations in these areas as they will have the highest risk of transmission.”
Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London and member of Sage’s sub-group on pandemic behaviour, said the government needs “to throw everything we can at it”.
“If you take it to people’s doors, into the street they live in, people who are a bit hesitant, if you make it easy, they may be more likely to accept the vaccine,” she said.
“It [surge vaccinations] signals the importance of it. People will realise, if the messaging is right, that what this is about is stopping transmission from further increasing in a specific area.”
She warned that B1.617.2 is already “rising exponentially” in some parts of the country. The Kent variant makes up the majority of daily cases that are being reported, but B1.617.2 now accounts for a growing proportion.
For the week ending 1 May, more than 10 per cent of cases in England, excluding imported infections, were caused by B1.617.2, according to the Sanger Institute. These were concentrated in the North West, London and East of England.
Up to 5 May, a total of 520 cases of B1.617.2 had been detected in England, though it is believed this figure has since significantly increased.
Prof Kamlesh argued that surge vaccinations would also help to address disparities in infection rates between the least and most deprived areas of the countries, the latter of which have been hit hardest by Covid-19.
“Areas that have higher rates of infection are also more likely to be in deprived areas and with higher representation of ethnic minority groups,” he said.
“These are the populations that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and we know are also areas with lower uptake of vaccines. Targeting vaccination strategies to these areas could therefore help.
“It’s hard to know at the moment if the higher rates we’re seeing in some areas are linked to lower vaccine coverage. But it makes sense to increase vaccinating even without these data.”
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has separately called for all over-16s in the region to be vaccinated as soon as possible in a bid to curb the spread of the India variant, and described the recent spike of cases among young people in Bolton as “worrying”.
With 152 Covid infections per 100,000 people in the week up to 7 May, Bolton has the second highest infection rate in England, according to government data. It also has one of the country’s highest rates of B1.617.2.
Although current data suggests that the variants, including the Indian and Kent ones, are not spreading into older, vaccinated age groups, there are fears that a significant rise in cases among unprotected adults within these communities would help to fuel a third wave of infections and hospitalisations as more restrictions are eased.
“Sage are having an urgently called meeting today,” said Prof Michie. “There is a concern that we’re having this even before lifting restrictions on Monday.”
Introducing concentrated vaccination programmes to those at-risk areas “may take some weeks” before the effects are felt, said Irene Petersen, a professor of epidemiology at UCL, but this approach will ultimately reduce transmission and “help to bring the outbreaks under control”.
“Overall, we should look at which areas have the weakest defense (i.e. the lowest immunity) and increase vaccine uptake in these areas sooner rather later,” she told The Independent.
Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said “not letting variants in in the first place is preferable. Frankly, our border policy is woeful.”
Although surge vaccinations could help, he added, “jabbing folks will take time, plus there’s the need for two or so weeks for protection to start.”
Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said the immediate focus should be to “box in” the outbreak through “slower unlocking in these areas, surge testing and track and trace”. He added: “Then push it down gradually with extra vaccination.”