A leading coronavirus adviser has warned that the government needs to “act hard and act fast” if the Indian variant turns out to evade vaccines.
Referring to the dire infection numbers in India, which caused a record 4,205 confirmed deaths on Wednesday, he added: “Unless we want to turn into another India.”
There are three variants in the UK that have been identified in India, but scientists are most concerned about B.1.617.2.
According to the last Public Health England update on variants from Thursday, detected cases of B.1.617.2 more than doubled to 520 last week.
There is currently no solid data about the impact the variant may have on vaccines, though England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said on Monday: “At this point in time our view is it is less likely to be able to escape vaccination than some of the other variants, particularly the South African one."
Nonetheless, concerns are growing about the variant’s presence in the UK, particularly as Prof Whitty said it could be at least as transmissible as the Kent variant – which caused the massive spike of infections, hospital admissions and deaths in December and January.
While detected infections involving the variant remain relatively low, cases are nonetheless rising sharply, as this graph from coronavirus modeller Dr Duncan Robertson shows.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson issued an extraordinary warning about the “potentially lethal danger” variants – such as the Indian one – could pose to the UK’s successful vaccination programme, which had seen 67.8% of adults having received a first dose as of Wednesday.
“Should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines,” he told MPs, “they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January.”
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Daily COVID-19 deaths peaked at 1,477 on 19 January, according to government data.
On Monday, Johnson confirmed the third stage of easing England’s lockdown restrictions. It will allow people to mix indoors, including in pubs and restaurants.
Given the Indian variant's transmissibility, any evidence it can elude vaccines could force Johnson to rethink his road map and even reinforce restrictions.
Prof Reicher on Wednesday warned against “dither and delay” – something Johnson has been accused of with all three of the national lockdowns he has imposed during the pandemic.
For example, Prof Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose modelling convinced the prime minister to impose the first lockdown on 23 March last year, told MPs in June last year that deaths during the first wave could have been halved if Johnson had started that lockdown one week earlier.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) weekly epidemiological report, which was released on Tuesday, the B.1.617.2 variant has been identified in 31 countries. Of those, the UK has reported the largest number of cases outside India.
However, the WHO also said its potential impact on vaccines remains “uncertain”.
Watch: Wednesday's UK coronavirus numbers