A patient and paramedics outside ambulances at the Royal London Hospital in London, during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Picture date: Thursday January 21, 2021.
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LONDON — The coronavirus variant that first emerged in India could become the dominant strain of the virus in the U.K. in a matter of days, scientists have warned.
The U.K. is detecting a rapid spread of the Covid variant "B.1.617" that first emerged in India last October and is seen as responsible for a wave of infections that has engulfed the south Asian nation in recent months.
B.1.617 has three sub-lineages, each with slightly different mutations, the World Health Organization has said. The B.1.617 variant was dubbed a "variant of concern" by the WHO last week and on May 7, the U.K. dubbed the sub-lineage B.1.617.2 a variant of concern. Since then, the U.K. has seen cases caused by the variant almost double.
On Monday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told British lawmakers that there were 2,323 cases of the variant known as B.1.617.2 now confirmed in the U.K., up from 1,313 last Thursday. He said 483 of those cases had been detected in coronavirus outbreaks in the northern English towns of Bolton and Blackburn where, he said, it had become the dominant strain with cases doubling there in the last week and "rising in all age groups" — although hospitalizations were stable. There are now 86 local authorities with five or more confirmed cases, Hancock added.
The U.K. has introduced "surge vaccinations" in the most badly affected areas in a bid to protect as many people as possible from the virus and variant, which early evidence suggests is more transmissible.
Early data shows that the current Covid vaccines in use are still effective against the new variant, one government official said on Monday, although there is now a race to vaccinate younger age groups, and anyone who has previously not accepted the vaccine.
There are already concerns in government that the U.K.'s target date for ending all restrictions on social contact, June 21, could have to be reconsidered given the spread of the new variant.
Experts are sounding the alarm that it's likely that the variant is already entrenched. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the Guardian newspaper on Monday that the India variant could overtake a more transmissible Covid variant (known as B.1.1.7) that emerged in the U.K. last fall and which became a dominant strain in the country and other parts of the world.
"There is no evidence that the recent rapid rise in cases of the B.1.617.2 variant shows any signs in slowing," he told the newspaper. "This variant will overtake (the Kent variant) and become the dominant variant in the U.K. in the next few days, if it hasn't already done so."
That the variant poses potential problems for the U.K., a country with a high Covid vaccination rate (almost 70% of the adult population has had at least one dose of a vaccine and almost 40% have had two doses), does not bode well for other countries further behind in their vaccination programs, particularly in Europe.
The WHO has said that the variant from India has been detected across European countries. As of May 11, the B.1.617 variant had been detected in 44 countries in all six WHO regions, the organization said in its last weekly update.
Commenting in the British Medical Journal on Monday, one group of experts noted that "there are many things we know and many things we don't know about the B.1.617.2 variant" but that "we know enough to say that this new variant could be extremely serious."
"We know that it is spreading fast (roughly doubling each week in the UK and nearly tripling last week from 520 to 1,313 cases), that it is becoming established in a number of areas across the country," wrote Dr. Stephen Reicher from the University of St Andrews and Dr. Susan Michie and Dr. Christina Pagel from University College London who are experts in advisory groups (SAGE and Independent SAGE) which provide scientific advice to the government.
"Compared to the dominant B.1.1.7 variant, we know that B.1.617.2 is very likely to be more transmissible and that it might be better able to transmit between people who are fully vaccinated," they added.
"We don't yet know how much of the faster transmission is down to characteristics of the variant itself as opposed to the characteristics of those who are infected and ... we don't yet know whether and to what extent the new variant undermines the ability of vaccines to protect us against infection, hospitalisation, and death or to stop us transmitting infection to others," they added.
They noted that SAGE's "worst case" scenario modeling suggests that if B.1.617.2 were 40-50% more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant it could cause an increase in hospitalizations worse than January 2021 "and if it also escapes the vaccines more, the level could be considerably greater."
Currently, however, they warned that "we don't know enough to be sure exactly how serious it would be if it became the dominant variant in the U.K."