A Covid strain first detected in India is likely to become a ‘variant of concern’ after clusters were found in several areas of England, according to reports.
Cases of the variant have been found in schools, care homes and places of worship in the North West, London and the East Midlands, largely linked to travel.
It is ‘highly likely’ it will be declared a ‘variant of concern’ on Friday, though cases remain relatively low, Channel 4 News reported.
Such a change can mean an escalation in response from Public Health England (PHE), including ordering surge testing.
The strain – B1617.2 – is one of three related variants first seen in India which have been detected in the UK and designated ‘under investigation’ by PHE.
Cases of the variant have been found in schools, care homes and places of worship in the North West, London and the East Midlands, largely linked to travel (file image, antibody testing in Birmingham)
The others are B1617.1 and B1617.3.
According to Channel 4 News, there have been at least 48 clusters of B1617.2, although overall numbers remain small.
PHE said updates on the number of cases due to be released on Thursday have been delayed due to ‘processing issues’.
According to the most recent data by PHE, there have been 193 confirmed cases of the B1617.1 variant, up by 61 since the last update on April 21.
The first report on the B1617.2 variant shows 202 cases, and the first report on the B1617.3 variant shows just five cases.
According to internal documents from PHE, dated to May 5 and seen by The Guardian, the ongoing risk to public health from the variant subtype B1617.2 is ‘high’.
Nepal is now reporting 230 Covid cases per million, only narrowly behind India’s 280 per million, though its healthcare system is even less able to handle the surge
Nepal army personnel wearing PPE load the body of a Covid victim into the back of an ambulance so they can be taken for cremation
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told The Guardian that ‘at the current doubling rate (B1617.2) could easily become dominant in London by the end of May or early June’.
It comes as seven confirmed cases of the B1617.2 variant were detected in Northern Ireland – the first discovered in the region.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the news was ‘not entirely unexpected’ and that plans were in place ‘for such an eventuality’.
Health experts have said they ‘haven’t seen any hint’ of a current Covid variant that can fully evade the effectiveness of vaccines.
The Department of Health and Social Care and PHE have been contacted for comment.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANTS?
Real name: B.1.617 – now divided into B.1.617.1; B.1.617.2; B.1.617.3
When and where was it discovered?
The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021.
But the first cases appear to date back to October 2020.
Its presence in the UK was first announced by Public Health England on April 15. There have since been at least 400 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.
What mutations does it have?
It has 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China — but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.
Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
PHE officials said it has split into three distinct virus types, with types 1 and 3 both having the E484Q mutation but type 2 missing the change, despite having all the other hallmarks of the variant.
Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?
The L452R mutation is also found on the Californian variant (B.1.429), even though the two evolved independently. It is thought to make the American strain 20 per cent more infectious than the original Wuhan version – even with the extra 20 per cent it is likely slower than the Kent variant.
The E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.
The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines. Lab studies have suggested it may be able to escape some antibodies, but to what degree remains uncertain.
Early research suggests both the AstraZeneca vaccine, known as Covishield in India, and the Pfizer jab, still work against the variant, as well as India’s own jab, Covaxin. A paper published by SAGE last week suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants.
How deadly is it? Scientists still don’t know for sure. But they are fairly certain it won’t be more deadly than the current variants in circulation in Britain.
This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly. The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and mix with others for as long as possible to achieve this.
And, if other variants are anything to go by, the Indian strain should not be more lethal.
There is still no conclusive evidence to show dominant versions like the Kent and South African variants are more deadly than the original Covid strain – even though they are highly transmissible.
Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid admissions among people under 45, who have traditionally been less vulnerable to the disease.
There have been anecdotal reports from medics that young people make up two third of new patients in Delhi. In the southern IT hub of Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.
There is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain.
Should we be worried?
Scientists are unsure exactly how transmissible or vaccine-resistant the Indian variant is because it hasn’t been studied thoroughly.
The fact it appears to have increased infectivity should not pose an immediate threat to the UK’s situation because the current dominant Kent version appears equally or more transmissible.
It will take a variant far more infectious strain than that to knock it off the top spot.
However, if the Indian version proves to be effective at slipping past vaccine-gained immunity, then its prevalence could rise in Britain as the immunisation programme squashes the Kent variant.
The UK currently classes the Indian strain as a ‘Variant Under Investigation’, a tier below the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants. But there are calls to move it up to the highest category.
Scientists tracking the constantly-evolving virus say it’s still not clear if India’s third wave has been caused by the variant, or if it emerged at the same time by coincidence.