Update - Monday 24 May
Please note: this article has been updated in light of the new information made available by Public Health England this weekend.
There's been a lot of speculation around B.1.617.2, commonly known as 'the Indian variant'. Does it spread more quickly? Is the vaccine effective against it? Will it delay the proposed end of lockdown on 21 June? Dr Elizabeth Webb explains what we currently know, and the factors the Government will be weighing up.
The key criteria
In February the Government outlined 4 ‘tests’ they would use to determine whether each step of the easing of restrictions should go ahead. These were:
- the vaccination programme continues successfully
- hospitalisations and deaths are reduced in vaccinated people
- infection rates aren’t risking a surge in hospitalisations
- risks are not fundamentally changed by Variants of Concern
Throughout the easing of restrictions, the first 3 tests have been comfortably met. More than half the UK population has now had at least 1 vaccine dose and Public Health England estimated that vaccinations had prevented 33,000 hospitalisations and 11,700 deaths by the end of April. Infection rates are low with fewer than 1 in 1,000 people having coronavirus and numbers of people in hospital have fallen to the relatively low levels last seen in summer 2020.
However, the impact of the most recent easing of restrictions – on Monday 17 May, when indoor hospitality opened – on infections and hospitalisations is not yet certain.
The fourth test has caused more concern. Since last autumn, some key variants of concern have been detected in the UK. First, the UK or Kent variant (B.1.1.7) then the South African and Brazilian variants (B.1.351 and P.1, respectively). The Kent variant is now the most common variant in the UK and is spreading around the world. The South African and Brazilian variants have not become widespread in the UK.
More recently, we have heard about the Indian variant (B.1.617.2), of which there have now been more than 3,400 cases confirmed in the UK, concentrated mainly in areas of the North West of England, as well as the East Midlands and London, but now identified in many areas.
There are 3 key questions to ask about the Indian variant:
1. Is it easier to catch?
It’s difficult to work out whether B.1.617.2 is easier to catch than other coronavirus variants, however evidence increasingly suggests that it is. Estimates suggest that it may be between 10% and 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant.
2. Does it make people more unwell?
There is no evidence to suggest that B.1.617.2 makes people who catch it more unwell or increases the chances of hospitalisation or dying than previous variants of coronavirus. However, as the numbers of people with B.1.617.2 are still relatively small and most cases are quite recent, it is too early to know with certainty.
3. Will the vaccines protect us?
Early evidence suggests that the vaccines we have will protect us, but that the protection against B.1.617.2 may not be quite as good as against the Kent variant, particularly for people who have only had one dose.
4. Will the 21 June ending of restrictions still go ahead?
It’s difficult to say at this point whether the final step of the coronavirus roadmap - the easing of all lockdown restructions - should go ahead on 21 June. The Government will make the decision by 14 June, and by then there will be more certainty about how and whether B.1.617.2 differs from other coronavirus variants.