CASES of the Indian variant are on the rise amid fears it is the “fastest growing variant in the UK”.
But some scientists are not worried yet, saying the strain’s features look no more dangerous than those seen in variants that emerged from South Africa, Brazil and Kent.
🔵 Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest updates
Public Health England (PHE) announced the detection of the Indian variant, called B1617, on April 16.
But COG-UK – the group of scientists that analyse variants in the UK – said a patient in the UK first tested positive for B1617 on February 22.
While most cases of the variant have been linked back to international travel, some are the result of community spread.
How many cases are there in the UK?
At least 103 cases of the Indian variant have been detected in the UK, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed on April 19.
But some report that it is much higher.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth said: “As of today, UK COG (Covid Genomics UK) reports 135 cases of B1617 in the UK, 115 in the last 28 days – the fastest growing variant in the UK in the last three weeks.”
Meanwhile Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, has claimed public data says there are 160 cases already.
But it could be closer to 400 – because not all positive Covid swabs are analysed to determine what variant they were caused by, called genomic sequencing, only a fraction of cases are actually detected.
What are the symptoms of the Indian variant?
Public health officials have not noted that the symptoms of this variant are different to other strains.
The key signs of Covid to look out for are a high temperature, a new and continuous cough and loss of smell and/or taste.
People who have suffered coronavirus may also report headaches, fatigue and skin rashes during their illness.
Is it the cause of the third wave in India?
India, home to 1.4 billion people, has seen an astonishing spike in cases starting around mid-March.
It was reporting an average of 250,000 cases per day on April 19, and that only includes patients who were tested.
It’s difficult to say if the third wave in India is a result of the new variant, partly because the genomic sequencing there is not up to scratch.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “It is certainly possible that there is a cause and effect relationship but there have only been about 1,000 sequences published from India out of about 4 million cases in this wave so far.”
Prof Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: “India is currently witnessing a surge in marked surge in Covid-19 cases.
"The question is whether this is associated with the variant, with human behaviour (for example, the presence of large gatherings, and/or lack of preventive measures including hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing) or whether both are contributing.
“It is not clear at the present time whether B.1.617 is the main driver for the current wave.
“B1617 accounts for almost 70 per cent of genomes submitted by India… indicating that the variant is common in the isolates that went on to be sequenced – although this is a very small proportion compared with the total number of cases of infection.”
Can the Indian variant spread faster?
The Health Secretary Mr Hancock did not disclose if Government analysis of the variant had made any conclusions of whether the variant spreads faster.
Dr Barrett does not believe the variant can spread faster based on the fact it was first detected in India in October – several months before the third wave took off.
By comparison, the first case of the Kent variant in Britain has been traced back to September 20, when cases were low, and it spread rapidly over the following months before a local lockdown was used in mid-December.
Dr Barrett said: “We did see some sequences of this B1617 variant late last year so if it is driving the wave in India it has taken several months to get to this point which would suggest it’s probably less transmissible than the Kent B117 variant.”
Can the Indian variant evade vaccines?
The new strain has “two mutations which… may make the vaccines less effective, and may make the virus more transmissible”, Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), told the BBC.
These two mutations sometimes are called “escape mutations” because of their ability to dodge some antibodies in the blood.
Prof Hunter said: “Basically, applying what we know about other human coronaviruses would suggest that this is going to be even less controlled by vaccine."
“But we don’t know that for certain at the moment.”
Prof Peacock said: “There is limited evidence for the role of E484Q in immune escape – it was shown to have reduced neutralisation by some but not all convalescent plasma samples from people who have had natural infection with SARS-CoV-2 using an experimental system.
“L452R… is present in several variants of interest, including B.1.429 (associated with California). This mutation has been associated with weaker neutralisation of the virus by convalescent plasma from people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2.”
Dr Barrett said that although this variant has a couple of “potentially concerning mutations”, “these are probably not as serious as some of the mutations present in the variants first seen in Kent, South Africa and Brazil”.
“This could be because we have had less time to study them, so these mutations should be watched carefully,” he said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), all Covid-19 vaccines elicit a broad immune response involving a range of antibodies and cells.
Therefore, changes or mutations in the virus should not make vaccines completely ineffective.
If vaccines are found to have very little effect, then new vaccines can be created to protect against variants. Most of the firms that produced initial vaccines are already working on a new range of jabs.
What is being done to stop the spread of the Indian variant?
Mr Hancock announced yesterday that India will go on the UK’s “red list” from April 23, before which time at least 1,500 people per day are expected to arrive.
The red list classification means non British citizens cannot enter the UK from India, while those who are British citizens will have to quarantine for 10-days in a Government linked hotel.
Mr Hancock confirmed that surge testing will be used to stop the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant, but did not say where or when.
For surge testing to be deployed, a variant has to be labelled as “of concern” (VOC), like the variants first found in Kent, Bristol, Brazil and South Africa.
The Indian variant is currently labelled as a “variant under investigation” (VUI) along with six others.
Prof Peacock said to be classified as a variant of concern by PHE, it needs to be confirmed the Indian variant can do one or more of the following; spreads easier, causes more severe disease, escapes immunity from infection or vaccines.
Are scientists worried?
Not much is known about the variant for scientists to make conclusions about whether it is more dangerous.
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said he was concerned about the Indian variant, and believes it will be bumped up to be classified as a VOC.
He has also said the variant threatens to derail the lifting of lockdown.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “At the moment, we are still vulnerable, and some people in our population are still vulnerable – what I mean by that is the Indian variant, for example, certainly has a mutation like the ones that evade the best neutralising antibodies.
“If you have a population where at least half of us have had zero or one dose of vaccine, some won’t have made a very good response to the vaccine, because perhaps they are very old or obese or unwell, we still have a very large vulnerable population who can still be caught out by variants like this.”
However, Dr Barrett said that while the variant should be watched carefully, it is “probably not at the top tier of mutations that generate the most concern”.
Professor Andrew Hayward, who is on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the “evidence of increased transmissibility and escape from immunity is circumstantial” for the Indian variant.
But said he would “err on the side of caution” and “act sooner rather than later” when it comes to imposing increased travel restrictions.
Source: Read Full Article