THE Indian coronavirus variant is of “high concern” after cases doubled in a week but there is “no evidence” it can beat vaccines, a minister has said.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, stressed that the government would proceed “with caution” as the country emerges from lockdown.
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The strain is behind a surge in hospitalisations and deaths in India – though the country is not currently on the government’s travel red list and officials have not yet labelled it a “variant of concern”.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told the Mail on Sunday that cases of the variant had doubled in the past week to reach 160 – and said its spread was “concerning”.
Asked about the variant from India on Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday, Mr Eustice said: “The last I think I saw… there were around 70 cases.
“But I think I’ve seen lots of different numbers on different variants – you’ll appreciate, there is quite a few – so it is a fairly small number at the moment. But it is something that we are watching.”
‘PROCEED WITH CAUTION’
He added: “The biggest threat now is that at some point there will be a variant that manages to evade the vaccine.
“There is no evidence at the moment that this particular variant is able to get around the vaccine…or that it is necessarily more contagious than the others.
“So it is high on our concern but the vaccine rollout has been incredibly successful.
“But even with 60 per cent of the adult population vaccinated we continue to proceed with caution as we come out to lockdown.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of NHS Test and Trace, today said that experts needed “more data” on the variant to clarify whether India would need to be placed on the travel red list.
She said: “Red list decisions are based on a number of factors including whether it is a variant of concern.
“We have marked it as a variant under investigation but not as a variant of concern.
“We have not got enough data on this variant yet to be able to clarify this.
“To escalate this up the ranking we need to know that it has increased transmissibility, increased severity or if it is vaccine evading – and we just don’t know that yet.”
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee On Vaccine and Immunisation, said the variant is unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one”.
He told Times Radio: “The immunity vaccines give won’t just disappear.”
India has seen soaring Covid-19 rates, with more than 14 million confirmed cases and 174,000 deaths.
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Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, stressed that the spread of the Indian variant was worrying and urged the government to clamp down on travel from the country.
He told the Times: “When you look at the South African strain it has one escape mutation. Escape mutations are mutations that make it less controlled by prior immunity.
“The big concern with the Indian variant is it potentially has two escape mutations. If that is the case then it might be even more resistant to vaccine than the South African variant, which we know is partially resistant.”