New coronavirus cases involving the Indian variant have more than doubled in a week as Government ministers said they cannot rule out imposing local restrictions to suppress its spread.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) published on Thursday shows a steep rise in cases associated with B16172, which has been designated as a “variant of concern”, from 520 last week to 1,313.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the situation was being monitored carefully and the Government “will not hesitate to take further action if necessary”.
How many cases have been detected in the UK?
There are 1,313 confirmed cases of the B16172 variant in the UK.
The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in the North West, mainly in Bolton, Sefton in Merseyside, Blackburn in Lancashire, and London.
What is being done?
Mobile testing units have been deployed in Bolton and door-to-door PCR Covid-19 testing has been offered to 22,000 residents.
A vaccine bus has been set up to increase uptake among those who are eligible and a rapid response team of 100 nurses, public health advisers and environmental health officers has been sent in.
Surge testing has also been deployed in Sefton, after cases of the Indian variant were confirmed in the Formby area, as well as in parts of London.
Alongside imposing local lockdowns, the Government is also considering bringing forward the date for a second dose of vaccine for eligible groups to increase protection as well as vaccinating younger people in multi-generational households.
Will bringing forward second jabs help tackle the rise?
When the national vaccine programme began in the UK, officials took the bold decision to delay administering booster shots so that more elderly and vulnerable people could more quickly receive their first shots.
Studies have since shown that giving the second dose 12 weeks after the first, instead of 21 days, can produce a stronger immune response.
Thus it remains to be seen whether bringing forward the date of the second dose could help curb rising infections.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said “surge vaccination” will “possibly” work, but it is “not an easy question either way”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “One of the difficulties with vaccination is that it does take a couple of weeks to work, so if you’re moving vaccines away from areas where they currently don’t have much Indian variant and that is increasing, by the time you start getting round to vaccinating that group again when maybe the epidemic, the Indian variant, is increasing rapidly again, probably you might well have been able to stop that if you hadn’t diverted vaccines to surge areas.
“So it’s not an easy question either way, to be honest.”
Is the B16172 variant driving the second wave in India?
On Thursday, India recorded 4,000 deaths and 343,144 new Covid-19 infections over the last 24 hours.
Scientists believe B16172 may be more transmissible than the UK variant (B117), which was first detected in Kent last year, and may be linked to the second wave in the country.
Professor Robert Dingwall, who is a member of Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) – an expert committee which advises the Government on the threat posed by new respiratory viruses – said that while B16172 may be capable of becoming the dominant variant in the UK, the risk of a surge in deaths or hospital admissions remains low.
He told the PA news agency: “B16172 seems to be slightly more transmissible and capable of outcompeting the B117 or B1351 (South African variant) to become the dominant variant in the UK.
“The consequence of this would be a greater number of mild illnesses with little risk of a surge in hospitalisations or deaths.”
Will vaccines still work?
At present, there is no evidence the B16172 variant is resistant to current vaccines.
Although deemed to be more transmissible, it does not feature the E484K mutation found in the South African variant of the virus, which could help the virus evade a person’s immune system and may affect how well coronavirus vaccines work.
Prof Dingwall told PA: “This variant seems to be better managed by the vaccines than the South African variant so that vaccinated people have only a very low risk of infection that is likely to be mild.”
What other variants of concern have been identified in the UK?
All viruses undergo small genetic changes as they make copies of themselves in the host.
Most of these mutations are harmless but some can make the disease more infectious or threatening, and evade protection gained through infection or vaccination.
PHE has designated the UK, South Africa and Brazil (P1) variants as being “of concern”.
Current vaccines have been designed for earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work, but may be less effective.
But experts are confident existing vaccines can be tweaked to better tackle emerging mutations.
The UK Government has a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, and has pre-ordered 50 million doses.