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11 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 6:00am

Here’s what you need to know about the Indian “variant of concern” discovered in the UK

Over 1300 cases of the new variant have now been found in the UK – how concerned should we be?

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Following days of speculation and rising case numbers, Public Health England (PHE) has escalated one sub-type of the Indian coronavirus variant to a “variant of concern”.  

According to PHE, evidence suggests the variant, known as B.1.617.2, is “at least as transmissible” as the Kent variant discovered last year, which caused a spike in transmission across the UK.

“We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this [strain] is a more transmissible variant,” said Susan Hopkins, director of PHE’s coronavirus strategic response, in a statement.

This particular sub-strain is believed to be more prolific than the main Indian variant and to have been present in the UK for a number of weeks, and cases are rising. Confirmed cases of the variant have nearly tripled in the last week: 1,313 cases have been detected up to 13 May, up from a total of 520 cases the previous week.

In response to the rising number of cases, scientists have called for vaccination surges to take place where the variant is most prevalent, to reduce transmission and protect those at risk.

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On 13 May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he is “anxious” about the new variant, and that he will not rule out reimposing restrictions such as local lockdowns. “There are a range of things we could do,” Johnson said, “if we have to do other things [to control the spread], then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out.”

Ministers “want to consider all options,” a No 10 spokesperson added. “We want to make sure we keep the public safe and keep our roadmap on track.”

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An urgent meeting with the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was held this week to assess if the spread of the variant could impact Britain’s roadmap out of lockdown. As yet, there has been no announcement of a change in plans to ease out of lockdown. The next round of restrictions to be lifted – which will allow for greater social mixing indoors and further reopening of the hospitality sector – is planned to go ahead on 17 May.

What else do we know about the variant of concern?

The strain is present across England, but there are two hotspots where it is most prevalent: the north-west (predominantly Bolton), and London. “Everyone in the affected areas will be asked to get a test, even if they don’t have symptoms,” PHE said, adding that where clusters emerge, measures including enhanced contact tracing and surge testing will be used to break chains of transmission.

[see also: Why England is dangerously exposed to new Covid-19 variants]

However, it is still too early to determine the potency of the new strain. PHE said there is “currently insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India cause more severe disease or render the vaccines currently deployed any less effective”. 

It is important to note that, so far, the current roster of vaccines has largely been effective against other variant[s] of concern, including the Kent, Brazil and South African strains.

The original Indian variant of coronavirus – known as B.1.617 – was detected in the UK in October, and has now mutated into three different subtypes. Similar to the Kent and Brazilian variant, the Indian variant has undergone changes to the “spike protein”, the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells.

The new classification comes as more than 54 million vaccines have been administered in the UK, with nearly 18 million people fully vaccinated after receiving both doses.

The new variant of concern has not at this stage affected the next stage of England’s lockdown restrictions roadmap, with Boris Johnson announcing this week that plans to open up more areas of hospitality on 17 May will go ahead. Travel to and from India was suspended on 23 April after the country was added to the no-entry “red list”, and it is hoped that the Indian variant will be suppressed in the UK by rapid testing and ensuring those who are infected isolate quickly.

We’ve been here before: the Brazilian strain was labelled a variant of concern in March, but thanks to swift action, such as a South America travel ban and a targeted test and isolate approach, the UK largely suppressed the spread.

As with the Brazilian case, with the help of hindsight and the strength of the vaccination programme, the emergence of a new variant is not a reason to panic, but it should cause ministers and officials to act with caution – and, most importantly, follow the science.

[see also: “Total helplessness”: the accountability crisis behind India’s Covid-19 surge]