3 things we learned about the Indian COVID variant today

·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·4-min read
BOLTON, ENGLAND - MAY 18: People queue for Covid-19 vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton where mass vaccinations are taking place to try and combat rising levels of the Indian coronavirus variant on May 18, 2021 in Bolton, England. Bolton joined the rest of England in resuming indoor dining yesterday, although the UK health secretary has warned that the government will consider a local lockdown in Bolton
People queuing for vaccines in Bolton amid the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant. (Getty Images)

There have been concerns over the past week that the Indian coronavirus variant could delay the government’s plan to lift all lockdown restrictions in England on 21 June. 

However, there were some encouraging signs on Wednesday. Here are three things we learned about the B.1.617.2 variant.

1) It’s still spreading quickly...

Health secretary Matt Hancock announced in the House of Commons on Wednesday that there have now been 2,967 confirmed B.1.617.2 infections in the UK.

That’s up 644 from the 2,323 cases Hancock announced on Monday, which in itself was up 1,010 from the 1,313 cases announced by Public Health England on Thursday.

In response to the spread of the variant, Hancock also announced surge testing and additional vaccinations will be rolled out in six more areas: Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, and North Tyneside.

Watch: Almost 3,000 cases of Indian variant in UK

Testing and vaccine drives have already been deployed in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen.

"The race between the virus and the vaccine has got a whole lot closer," Hancock said.

2) ...but the variant may not be as transmissible as feared

Prof Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London scientist whose modelling convinced the government to impose the first national lockdown last spring, said the B.1.617.2 variant may not be as transmissible as initially feared.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “We’re trying to work out if the rapid growth we’ve seen in areas such as Bolton is going to be typical of what we could expect to see elsewhere, or if it is what’s called a 'founder effect' – which is often seen in these circumstances.

"There’s a glimmer of hope from the recent data that while this variant does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data so the curves are flattening a little."

But he stressed it will take “a little more time before we can be definitive about that”.

Initial data suggested the variant could be up to 50% more transmissible than the dominant Kent variant. Prof Ferguson said it is "much easier to deal with 20%, even 30%" than if it was 50%.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference later, England's deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said he expects the number to be "somewhere in the middle" between a few percent and 50%.

Britain's Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam explains a vaccination slide as he give an update on the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic during a virtual press conference inside the Downing Street Briefing Room in central London on May 19, 2021. (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam at Wednesday's Downing Street press conference. (AFP via Getty Images)

The data "will begin to firm up some time next week," Prof Van-Tam promised, while adding transmission of the new variant is “not inevitable” and can be slowed down through “cautious behaviour”.

3) ‘Increasing confidence’ vaccines work

Following Prof Ferguson's comments about transmissibility, there was further good news as Boris Johnson told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday: “We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants – including the Indian variant.”

Johnson’s official spokesman later said the PM had been referring to daily case rates as well as studies showing “high levels of efficacy” for the vaccines.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, London. Picture date: Wednesday May 19, 2021. (Photo by Luciana Guerra/PA Images via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (PA Images via Getty Images)

Prof Ferguson, in his earlier Today interview, had said there was not enough data to distinguish between the different vaccines on effectiveness in tackling variants, but added “there’s a good deal of confidence… that vaccines will protect against severe disease”.

It’s a boost for the government’s plans to lift all lockdown restrictions.

Hancock, meanwhile, announced a £19m clinical trial to look at the current vaccines as booster jabs.

The Cov-Boost study will trial seven vaccines and provide data on the impact of a third dose on patients’ immune responses.

Read more:

Six areas to get surge testing after Indian variant cases increase 30% in two days

4 maps that show how Indian COVID variant spread across England in 4 weeks

Watch: Do coronavirus vaccines affect fertility?

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