A form of the coronavirus variant first identified in India, which is now spreading in the UK, appears to be spread at last as easily as the more highly transmissible “Kent variant” that now dominates UK infections. The variant, called B.1.617.2 was designated a “variant of concern” on 7 May by health authorities in England.
B.1.617.2 is one of three sub-lineages of B.1.617, the variant that has become common in India and which some has been considered, but not proven, to be one potential factor to blame for the crisis India has been facing.
Public Health England has moderate confidence that the B.1.617.2 variant is on par for transmissibility with B.1.1.7, which originated in the UK, said Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge at a press briefing today. The view is based on the variant’s mutations and its ability to circulate in the UK alongside the Kent variant. However, there is still much we do not know about the Indian variants.
Peacock said the level of confidence meant we will not know how readily it transmits until studies are done with more cases. “There’s a huge amount of uncertainty around this at the moment”, she said.
Encouragingly, the variant does not seem more harmful. “There isn’t any evidence that this causes more severe disease,” said Peacock, referring to data from the UK. She noted the mortality rate has been high in India but the country was operating in challenging circumstances, and there was no reason to think the variant caused more severe disease.
The total number of confirmed cases of the variant in the UK stands at 520, with 318 of those between 28 April and 5 May. Mapping of cases that have been genetically sequenced suggests hotspots in central and north-west England, with the highest rates in Bolton. Being officially designated a variant of concern by PHE means surge testing is available to local areas to contain its spread in tandem with contact tracing.
Unlike the other two versions of the India variant, it does not have the E484Q mutation, which is in the same position on the virus as E484K, a mutation linked to helping the it evade antibodies. For that reason, Peacock says the variant circulating in the UK “worries me less” than another version prevalent in India, B.1.617.1.
Ravi Gupta of the University of the Cambridge said research suggests B.1.617.1 does have a greater ability to bypass defences triggered by vaccination or an earlier coronavirus infection. Gupta said there are signs it is better at spreading among vaccinated people, even though vaccination still appears to protect against severe disease . “In terms of controlling transmission there may be a degree of compromise,” he said.
There is a possibility the version in the UK, B1.1617.2, becomes the country’s dominant form of the coronavirus, said Gupta, speaking at the briefing today. “It all depends on the dynamics of transmission and how quickly we can detect [variants] and close them off.”
The good news is old ways of limiting existing variants will work for all these new variants. “This isn’t a special variant that is going to get around washing your hands, distancing, wearing a mask and being in a well-ventilated place,” said Peacock of B.1.617.2.
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