Health officials have said they have discovered a worrying variant of coronavirus for the first time in the UK. The variant which originated in India is described as having a “concerning” double mutation.
A total of 77 cases of the variant, known as B.1.617, have been recorded in the UK up to 14 April , according to Public Health England (PHE). Of these cases, 73 were recorded in England and four in Scotland.
It is the first time PHE had reported this particular variant in the UK, and it is currently labelled as a “variant under investigation”. If worries about the variant are borne out; for example, if it appears to be more contagious or more resistant to vaccines or the body’s immune response then it will be designated a “variant of concern”.
At present Britain has a handful of “variants of concern” including the one first detected in Kent as well as those from South Africa and Brazil. All three have a mutation known as N501Y which scientists believe make the virus more contagious.
This Indian variant has two new significant mutations in the spike protein that help it infect cells and evade the immune system. Experts are concerned the new variant of COVID-19 has all the hallmarks of an extremely dangerous virus.
Scientists have described the variant as a double mutant because it carries two different mutations of the virus, E484Q and L452R. One mutation, E484Q has been found in Denmark. The other L452R, has been found in a variant in California. There is no link between the viruses and scientists say the Indian variant has evolved independently. It is not yet known what impact these two deviations would have on the effectiveness of the existing vaccines.
Professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, Paul Hunter said the arrival of the India variant could be more “problematic” than other known variants. He said: “These two escape mutations working together could be a lot more problematic than the South African and Brazilian variants who have only got one escape mutation”.
Professor Hunter added “It might be even less controlled by vaccine than the Brazilian and South African variants.”
The variant was first discovered in the western state of Maharashtra. Maharashtra is the worst-hit state in India, and is home to the financial capital, Mumbai. It has been reported that around 60 per cent of samples screened by scientists there were caused by the B.1.617 variant.
Although infection rates in India are soaring, officials have said there is no real evidence to suggest the mutation is linked to the latest spike in cases there. This second wave, which is showing no signs of slowing down, is instead being blamed on a lack of lockdowns, political rallies, and mass gatherings, such as the Hindu festival – Haridwar Kumbh Mela – all of which are fuelling the emergency.
The discovery of so many cases of the Indian variant in the UK highlights the flaw in relying on the governments traffic light system for controlling international spread of potentially dangerous viruses.
Despite recording over 200,000 new cases every day for the last week India is not on the ‘red list’ of travel for the UK. In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, Bradford West MP, Naz Shah questioned why the government have recently added both Pakistan and Bangladesh to the ‘red list’. She said: “What scientific data is any decision being led by,” Ms Shah added that: “According to recent available data, France, Germany and India have substantially higher numbers of infections per 100,000”.
Ms Shah concluded that the British government did not have a coherent strategy for dealing with the ‘red list’ and was applying decisions led by politics and not data. She said: “Contrary to what the government is saying, it is clearly not making decisions fed by science/data. Further, it is knowingly and consciously discriminating against Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora community”.
It is still unclear to the extent the B.1.617 variant is playing in India’s latest surge of Coronavirus. However, Boris Johnson is expected to travel to India on an official visit later this month although it is believed his itinerary has had to be curtailed because of the Covid situation there.
In a tweet the director of Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London and member of the Independent Sage Group, Prof Christine Pagel said: “The discovery of the variant in Britain is worrying” and advised that Mr Johnson should cancel his plans to visit Delhi.
News of the arrival of the Indian variant comes as surge testing has been expanded in London in an attempt to control Coronavirus variants. Testing and contact tracing have been increased in parts of Barnet, Lambeth, Hillingdon, Southwark and Wandsworth. Sandwell council in the West Midlands has also announce it is going to commence surge testing.