The coronavirus variant of concern first detected in India is continuing to spread across England, with cases emerging beyond “hotspot” areas, data suggests.
The variant, known as B.1.617.2, is thought to be driving a rise in Covid cases in parts of the UK and is believed to be both more transmissible than the variant first detected in Kent, which previously dominated, and somewhat more resistant to Covid vaccines, particularly after just one dose.
At present up to three-quarters of new Covid cases in the UK are thought to be caused by the India variant. There have also been signs of a slight rise in hospitalisations.
The situation has led some scientists to warn that the country is now in the early stages of a third wave of coronavirus which, despite the vaccination programme, modelling suggests could lead to a rise in hospitalisations and deaths, and that full easing of restrictions in England on 21 June should be reconsidered.
Data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which tracks the variants detected in Covid-positive samples through genome sequencing, has revealed the variant has spread further across England.
While parts of north-west England, such as Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, have previously been identified as hotspots for the India variant, the data shows that in the two weeks to 22 May it cropped up in areas as far afield as the Forest of Dean, Babergh, Wycombe and Cornwall – although numbers in these areas remain low. This data includes Covid-positive samples analysed for general surveillance and surge testing, but not those related to travel.
In other areas, including parts of the Midlands and south-east of England, there are signs the variant is becoming more common. In Croydon, 94.1% of analysed Covid-positive samples contained the India variant in the two weeks to 22 May – with about 40 genomes of this variant detected each week – up from 84.4% in the two weeks to 15 May when about 19 genomes of the variant were detected each week.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that while the India variant was still strongly clustered, it was becoming more geographically dispersed.“I think it fair to say that it is no longer contained in hotspots but not yet growing substantially throughout all areas. But that is exactly as you would have expected,” he said.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said the situation was “entirely predictable”, adding that while many experts have been calling for early action, that window of opportunity has now been missed.
“When government was claiming that these outbreaks were localised, it was very clear that B.1.617.2, while at different frequencies in different regions, was rapidly increasing across all of England, which meant that the variant would become dominant even where it wasn’t frequent in a matter of weeks – and this is exactly what happened,” she said.
“Now, we have a highly transmissible variant, capable of a significant level of escape from vaccines – especially after a single dose – leading to exponential rise in cases in many areas,” she added.
“While vaccines will help, we need to remember only 38% of our population are fully vaccinated, leaving large numbers unprotected, or with minimal levels of protection. Still, the focus in the media seems to be on 21 June, when the real question is: how do we deal with what is a public health crisis right now?”
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, the director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said the detection of the variant in many parts of the country suggests it is not fully contained in just a few hotspots, but “that was always likely to happen”.
“I think the important thing to watch is whether in the next few weeks these small numbers of more geographically widespread cases grow into sizeable outbreaks like the ones we’ve seen in the initial hotspots,” he said.