Health

Indian and South African Covid variants on rise amid fears of community spread, Hancock says


CASES of Covid caused by the Indian and South African variants are on the rise, the Health Secretary has said.

Not all cases have been in people who have travelled abroad, suggesting there is already community transmission of the strains.

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The Health Secretary Matt Hancock

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The Health Secretary Matt HancockCredit: PA

Matt Hancock told MPs that cases of the Indian variant have gone up to 103 from 77 on April 7, and from Friday India will need to go on the travel “red list”.

He said: “We’ve recently seen a new variant first identified in India. We’ve now detected 103 cases of this variant, of which again the vast majority have links to international travel and have been picked up by our testing at the border.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said scientists at COG UK – which monitor variants – had found 135 cases of the Indian variant.

He said it made the strain “the fastest growing variant in the UK in the last three weeks”.

Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, has also claimed public data says there are 160 cases already, but it could be closer to 400.

But surge testing has not been deployed to squash further spread.

The variant would need to be classified as “of concern” by the Government in order for surge testing to be rolled out, but is still only considered as “under investigation”.

Mr Hancock said: “(Mr Ashworth) is right to ask about surge testing to make sure that we limit the spread as much as is possible of the variant first found in India – and we will be doing that, I can confirm.”

Samples of the Indian variant have been analysed to see if it does have “concerning characteristics” as feared.

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Mr Hancock did not reveal the findings of these early studies and if they meant the Indian variant had greater transmissibility or was resistant to treatments and vaccines.

He said: “After studying the data, and on a precautionary basis, we’ve made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list.”

It means anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen cannot enter the UK if they’ve been in India in the previous 10 days.

“UK and Irish residents and British citizens who have been in India in the past 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival,” Mr Hancock said.

“These rules will come into force at 4am on Friday.

“India is a country I know well and love. Between our two countries we have ties of friendship and family. I understand the impact of this decision but I hope the House will concur that we must act.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cancelled his trip to India next week amid concern over the country’s rising coronavirus cases.

India, home to 1.4 billion people, is seeing record high levels Covid cases, with 200,000 infections recorded in a single day.

Mr Hancock also said that cases of the South African variant had gone up to 557 after a cluster of cases was discovered in south London last week.

Public Health England data says confirmed cases are at 600.

The Health Sec said two thirds of cases were “related” to international travel.

“However, we have seen small amounts of community transmission too,” Mr Hancock revealed.

“As soon as these cases were discovered we acted quickly to put in enhanced testing, tracing and sequencing in Lambeth and Wandsworth.”

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The largest testing operation to date has invited people in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Wandsworth, and the Rotherhithe ward of Southwark.

Barnet Council has also urged residents in Finchley N3 to get a test after a singular case was discovered there.

Mr Hancock said today: “I’d urge everyone who lives in these areas, whether you have symptoms or not, to get tested regularly and help us keep this variant under control.”

Health officials have said they have seen cases of the South African variant in people who have been vaccinated.

Booster shots this year

Concern about vaccine-evading variants has led to the Government ramping up plans for a campaign of booster shots later this year.

Mr Hancock highlighted the success of the vaccine rollout – with 10 million people now having received two doses – and falling hospital admissions and deaths.

But he told the Commons: “The biggest risk to our progress here in the UK is a new variant that the vaccine does not work as well.”

In the same way that updated vaccines were deployed to tackle flu mutations, Mr Hancock said the Government was “ramping up plans for a booster shot to make sure our vaccines stay ahead of the virus”.

“We’ve already procured enough vaccine doses to begin the booster shots later this year,” he said.

Work was being carried out to assess which vaccines will be effective in targeting “variants of concern”, such as the one first found in South Africa.

Rapid investigation needed

It comes as officials have been urged to rapidly investigate the Indian Covid variant as it poses a threat to lockdown easing plans.

The variant has two “escape mutations”, named E484Q and L452R, which in theory help the virus to dodge antibodies made by the immune system after vaccination or infection.

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Scientists have been urged to gather information on this as quickly as possible, but it could take weeks, partially due to a lack of samples of the virus.

Prof Andrew Hayward, who is a Government scientific adviser as part of Sage, said evidence the variant can dodge immunity currently has no foundations.

And he warned “it’s going to take a number of weeks at least before that evidence gets firmed up and we find out more”.

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said scientists need to work out a number of key characteristics of the virus.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it “can be quite difficult to get virus samples that further experiments can be done on”.

Without samples, scientists can’t carry out lab experiments to work out how the virus strain behaves.

Dr Barrett said that the variant of the virus first identified in India should be “watched carefully”.

But in his mind, it is “probably not at the top tier of mutations that generate the most concern”, seen in strains that emerged from Kent and South Africa.

Matt Hancock announces India is to be added to the red list





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