The B.1.617.2 variant, identified in India, is already causing concern to UK government, scientists and citizens and could delay England’s return to normal life. “It is too early to say what this summer will look like,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday (14) in an interview called on to warn the country of the new risks.
“This new variant could cause serious interruptions when reopening,” said the Prime Minister. According to him, the passage to stage 3 – which includes the reopening of businesses and restaurants, the authorization to receive guests and the return of trips – is maintained from this second.
But, if B.1.617.2 proves to be significantly more transmissible than the current viruses circulating in the country, the transition to stage 4 will no longer be done on June 21, Boris warned. According to him, in addition to the degree of contagion, it is also necessary to know if the variant manages to escape the protection of the vaccines.
Between May 5 and 12, four people infected with B.1.617.2 died in England, according to the government, and it was found in 1,565 patients. WHO investigation indicates that, up to May 11, all three versions of the variant have been detected in virus samples from 44 countries, including large parts of Europeans, China and across America North. From South America, only Argentina appears in the entity report.
Early indications are that B.1.617.2 may be up to “50% more transmissible” than the B.1.1.7 strain, which is now widespread in the UK, according to a report by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage ). British medical director Chris Whitty has said he could become dominant in the country, surpassing the lineage identified in England last year.
Regarding vaccines, there are signs that they are effective against the Indian variant, “but it is far from clear,” said Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham.
According to him, “the emergence and spread of strains that escape the protection of immunizers are the main threats to the return to normalcy.” Ball points out that a large part of the British population has not yet received the second dose “, and it is likely that many of them could be infected and potentially transmit the virus”.
According to the government, 36% of adults have already been fully vaccinated and 32% have received the first dose, until Friday. In addition, 32% of the adult population has yet to receive any of the injections, according to government figures. The schedule calls for all adults to be vaccinated by the end of July.
“The race between vaccination and variants is narrowing,” said Boris, announcing that the interval between the first and the second dose will be reduced from 12 to 8 weeks for people aged 50 and over and those with co-morbidities . The aim is “to accelerate additional protection”.
Anticipation of the second dose makes sense, Ball says, because “there is a potential risk that the virus will acquire more mutations, especially if it continues to spread in a partially immune population.”
Boris said advances in vaccination are now making the country better off than at the end of last year, when B.1.1.7 spread across England, causing chaos in the hospitals and precipitating a new lockdown at the start of the year.
According to Jonathan Ball, “keeping control over the distribution of this variant will not be easy”. The virology professor said he hopes the vaccines will minimize the impact of B.1.617.2. He says if the variant is not contained, there will be no choice but to impose a new lockdown in England.
In another interview also in the afternoon of Friday, the technical manager of the Covid-19 of the WHO (World Health Organization), Maria van Kerkhove, affirmed that “the pandemic is not yet over and the variants create a lot of uncertainty “.
Like the UK government, the WHO this week classified B.1.617 as a ‘variant of concern’, indicating that it has the potential to affect tests, treatments or vaccines, and therefore should be monitored. from close.
Sage’s calculations before the alert caused by the Indian variant already predicted that more traffic during the summer would bring a new wave in August, but much smaller than that at the end of last year. According to scientists, however, the growth curves of the new strain are very similar to those of the English variant when it first began to be detected, which is worrying.
Last week, Sage recommended that the government make containment of the Indian variant a priority, because if it turns out to be much more transmissible, it could cause “a very large wave of infections, potentially greater than that seen in January 2021 “.
According to calculations made by the University of Warwick, while the new variant is 50% more contagious, daily hospitalizations can reach 10,000 if there is no new childbirth – for comparison, the government recorded on Friday around 1,000 hospitalized Covid-19 patients.
Another estimate, made by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, indicates that without containment measures 50% higher transmissibility could lead to a further peak of up to 1,000 deaths per day – the current average is 10 / day.
The risk of hospital chaos and additional deaths exists even with the advance of vaccination, scientists say, because in addition to not all being vaccinated, vaccines are not 100% effective.
Boris, who on Monday (10) announced a “new phase, in which the government no longer needs to determine what can and cannot be done,” said on Friday he expected people “make good decisions, well informed about the risks”. and called for “extreme caution” before enjoying the new freedom to travel or to meet friends and relatives: “What we do now will have serious consequences in the future.”
The PM disputed that the move to the third phase was rushed at a time when the Indian variant was already considered to be of concern – this is one of the four criteria established by the government for moving forward with deflation .
According to Boris, the low numbers of the epidemic across the country allow this step. “I will do anything to insure this virus. But, if the health system is in danger, we will react in time, ”he said. The government will strengthen the current program of two free trials per week to try to quickly identify new outbreaks and block them.
Outbreaks of B.1.617.2 are currently concentrated in the north-west of England, in Bolton (Greater Manchester) and Blackburn (County of Lancashire), where the number of new cases of Covid-19 “has soared in boom in the past 15 days, “according to Witty.
The data shows that transmission occurs mainly in those under the age of 60, and there are two hypotheses about this, according to the medical director. The first is that the contagion starts with the youngest, who circulate more, find more people and are more at risk, and who will still reach the elderly.
The second hypothesis is that full vaccination protects the elderly from the variant. “It is too early to tell. We will have to observe what will happen in the next two or three weeks, ”he said. The government will send the military to distribute tests in affected areas and step up vaccination and campaigns to increase support.
In a YouGov survey released on Friday, 69% of the British population expressed concern about the Indian variant, including 22% who are “very worried”. They said not to worry 27%.
Despite the new variant, 44% consider that June 21 is the right time to end the restrictions against Covid-19. 33% think it may be too early for this.
The Indian variant has also affected the Scottish government’s opening plans, which have postponed the easing of restrictions in Glasgow for at least a week – one of the busiest in the country, the city has seen a recent surge in numbers new cases.