A Covid-19 strain first detected in India is has been designated a “variant of concern” by Public Health England (PHE).
The strain was previously classed as “under investigation”, but has since been upgraded after clusters were found in several areas of England and Scotland.
Cases of the variant, officially known as B1617.2, is one of three related variants first seen in India. The other two strains are B1617.1 and B1617.3.
The variant is has been found in schools, care homes and places of worship in the North West of England, London, the East Midlands and Scotland, largely linked to travel.
How many cases of the variant are in the UK?
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there are now 86 of 343 local authorities in England with five or more confrimed cases of the Indian variant, and more than 2,300 cases overall in the UK. This means there has been a 77 per cent increase in confirmed cases of the variant over the last five days.
The majority of cases of the India Covid strain are concentrated in the north-west of England, predominantly in Bolton, and in London.
Surge testing has been under way in parts of Bolton since 7 May, after Public Health England (PHE) confirmed the town is one of the main locations of the India variant, which was reclassified as a ‘variant of concern’ last week.
There has been 80 confirmed cases of the Indian variant recorded in Bedford, which has seen its Covid rate jump from 61.2 cases in the week up to 6 May to 123.5 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days up to 13 May. Bedford is only behind Bolton in Greater Manchester, which continues to have the highest rate in England, with 811 new cases recorded in the seven days to 13 May.
There are also around 30 cases of the India variant in parts of Scotland, including Glasgow, with these cases connected to travel.
Surge testing is now under way in areas of the North West of England, where cases of the Indian variant of are increasing.
The UK government is also considering implementing ‘surge vaccinations’ in some of the worst affected areas, to allow people to get their Covid vaccination earlier to prevent further spread.
Speaking on Sky News, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi explained that younger people in areas where there is a surge of the variant could be vaccinated sooner.
He said: “The clinicians will look at all of this to see how we can flex the vaccination programme to make it as effective as possible to deal with this surge in this variant, the B1617.2.
“They will make those decisions and we will be ready to implement, whether it’s vaccinating younger cohorts.”
Is the strain more deadly?
PHE said there is currently no evidence to suggest that the new Indian variant is more serious than previous mutations, nor is there evidence which indicates that this version of the Indian variant is resistant to current vaccines.
Mr Hancock said that while it is "quite likely" that the variant will become the dominant strain in the UK, there is “increasing confidence” that the vaccines will protect against the new strain, but stressed the importance of continuing to follow government guidance and come forward for testing.
Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, he said: "What that reinforces is the importance of people coming forward for testing and being careful because this isn't over yet.
"But the good news is because we have increasing confidence that the vaccine works against the variant, the strategy is on track - it's just the virus has gained a bit of pace and we've therefore all got to be that bit more careful and cautious."
Sharon Peacock, head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it could be the case that coronavirus mutates to become less infectious, although she warned it could take years for it to become like the common cold.
Prof Peacock said: “My eyes are constantly now looking at the pattern of spread within the United Kingdom to see whether this variant is able to spread in our population under current restrictions.
“There’s no evidence at the moment that the variant described in India, which we call B.1.617, is resistant to the vaccine, far more work needs to be done.
“Very early work suggests that it’s not as resistant as, say, the variant first described in South Africa.
“But what we don’t know about this particular variant from India is how transmissible it is, so that’s the other key question.
“The big question for me is whether the Indian variant is also particularly transmissible.
“Now we can see that through experimental work, but the key is to watch it in the population, to see whether it’s associated with outbreaks and spread in the community.
“I know that Public Health England are really looking very carefully at that because that’s a sign that under the circumstances we’re under in terms of our current restrictions, whether that is spreading is a key signal – a public health signal of transmissibility.
The Kent, South Africa and Brazil coronavirus strains have all been classed as "variants of concern" in the UK.
These strains, along with the India variant, have all undergone changes to their spike protein, which is the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.
PHE said that mutations at the 484 spike protein have been associated with the Manaus and South African variants. The E484K mutation is reported to result in weaker neutralisation by antibodies in lab experiments, but the E484Q mutation is different and still subject to investigation.
Viruses by their nature mutate often, with more than 18,000 mutations discovered over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the overwhelming majority of which have no effect on the behaviour of the virus.
Symptoms to look for
The main symptoms of coronavirus to look for include:
- a high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)
- a new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)
- a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – this means you've noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal
Most people with symptoms have at least one of these symptoms, although some do not experience any. As such, it is advised that everyone gets tested regularly to help prevent further spread of the virus.
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