The UK is in a “very good position” against emerging coronavirus variants, with vaccines working and disease rates falling, an expert has said.
The comments come after Public Health England (PHE) upgraded the strain first detected in India – B.1.617.2 – to a variant of concern.
Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that, based on current evidence, there is nothing to suggest the Indian variant causes more severe disease than the Kent variant which is dominant in the UK.
However, she warned that a lack of evidence is not the same as no evidence, and that there is just not enough data at the moment.
Prof Peacock said: “Public Health England have said that they’ve put an assessment of moderate confidence of increased transmissibility based on the mutation profile and supported by the evidence that actually this does appear to compete with our current circulating variant, the Kent variant, and modelling on growth estimate suggesting that transmissibility is at least equal to B.1.1.7.”
She added: “I think that, for me, looking at the overall landscape, I’m still very delighted that vaccines are working, that, you know, whatever is out there, vaccines are working, and disease rates are falling, so we’re in a very good position.
“As scientists we just have to keep our eye on this so that we just maintain that trajectory.”
Speaking at a press briefing, Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said laboratory analysis of an early version of the Indian variant – which is not surging in the UK – indicated vaccines may protect against severe disease, but there might be a greater degree of immune escape which will feed into estimates of transmissibility.
Prof Peacock said: “But I think the point is to note is that this isn’t a special variant of concern that’s going to get around washing your hands and distancing and wearing a mask, and being in a well-ventilated place – I think that’s the key thing.
“So, for me, the message is we just keep doing those things but we’re in a better position now because we have falling rates, and a good vaccination programme, which I would anticipate will just continue to increasingly protect our population.”
Prof Gupta said: “The mortality rates and the severity rate will be very low in the post-vaccination era, as long as we get the boosting right.
“Knowing what variants are doing is important for scientists and public health people because there are people out there who are susceptible to this virus, who can’t be vaccinated for example, or whose immune responses after vaccination are poor, and that fraction of vulnerable people is larger than one may think.
“As we’re opening up society now, what we don’t want to see is transmission of these variants that have more immune escape properties because then the vulnerable people within the UK population are at greater risk, we think.”
Asked whether there is a risk that the Indian variant could become the dominant strain in the UK, Prof Gupta said it is a possibility, but that with very low transmission in the country, there is an opening for a virus that is better adapted to vaccinated people to start transmitting.
He added: “It won’t cause severe disease in the majority of people or even death, so that it just may become the thing that circulates, but then so could the South African origin variant.
“It all depends on the dynamics of transmission, and how quickly we can detect them and close them off.”