More than 70 cases of the mutated strain have been identified in England and Scotland, but it has not yet been classified as a “variant of concern”.
British scientists must urgently learn as much as possible about the India Covid variant, a leading epidemiologist has warned, as calls mount for the country to be added to the government’s travel “red list”.
Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which provides evidence on coronavirus to the government’s Sage committee, said as much information about the new variant must be gathered “as quickly as possible”.
Mr Tildesley told BBC Breakfast: “What’s concerning about the Indian variant is there appear to be two mutations which… may make the vaccines less effective, and may make the virus more transmissible.”
Here’s what is known about the new variant so far.
How many cases of the variant are in the UK?
There are 77 confirmed cases of the India Covid variant, also known as B.1.617, in the UK, according to the latest update from Public Health England (PHE).
These include 73 cases in England and four in Scotland, based on PHE’s surveillance of the distribution of variants across the country from data up to 7 April.
Is the variant a ‘cause for concern’?
The variant is currently designated as a “variant under investigation” (VUI) rather than a “variant of concern” (VOC), such as those first identified in Kent, Manaus (Brazil) or South Africa.
PHE said there is currently no evidence to suggest that the new Indian variant is more serious than previous mutations, nor is there current evidence which indicates vaccines are less likely to work against it.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the variant features two “escape mutations” – E484Q and L452R – which “are causing people to be concerned”.
He said: “There’s laboratory evidence that both of these are escape mutations.
“Basically, applying what we know about other human coronaviruses would suggest that this is going to be even less controlled by vaccines.
“But we don’t know that for certain at the moment.”
According to PHE, the variant “includes a number of mutations including E484Q, L452R, and P681R”.
It said “all appropriate public health interventions will be undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing” after its detection, with PHE and international partners monitoring the situation “closely”.
There are four so-called “variants of concern” and seven “variants under investigation” which have been identified in the UK.
Has India been added to the travel “red list”?
As investigations into the new variant are still ongoing, India has not yet been added to the government’s travel “red list”.
Moving India onto this list would mean that only UK nationals could return from the country, and would be required to pay to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.
Environment Secretary George Eustice defended the government’s decision not to further restrict travel to the country, but said the situation is being kept “under regular review” and confirmed if scientists recommended a ban, the government would act.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now cancelled his visit to Delhi next week, as the Covid crisis worsens in Indian.
Downing Street issued a joint statement from the British and Indian governments on Monday (19 April) which said: “In the light of the current coronavirus situation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not be able to travel to India next week.
“Instead, Prime Ministers Modi and Johnson will speak later this month to agree and launch their ambitious plans for the future partnership between the UK and India.
“They will remain in regular contact beyond this, and look forward to meeting in person later this year.”
Could the variant affect the lockdown roadmap?
Mr Eustice said that it is still “too early to say” whether the next easing of lockdown restrictions will go ahead as planned on 17 May, as ministers continue to monitor variants of concern.