An interactive map today revealed where the Indian variant of coronavirus is spreading fastest after data showed the mutant virus is dominant in 23 towns.
Just three per cent of cases were found to be the strain in the seven days to April 24 across England.
But over the following two weeks this spiralled by eight-fold, with the variant now thought to be behind one in every five infections detected. It has been found in 127 out of 314 local authorities, or 40 per cent of areas.
Top scientists warn the troublesome variant — B.1.617.2 — may be up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant — B.1.1.7 —, and could become dominant across the whole country in the coming weeks.
But they say studies show vaccines are still effective at blocking serious illness and death among those who catch the virus, meaning jabs still offer ample protection. Boris Johnson said today there was increasing evidence that the vaccines offered protection against the strain.
Public health officials in hotspots, such as Bolton, Blackburn and parts of London, have urged ministers to rush out surge vaccinations there to head off a spike in cases. Department of Health bosses are reportedly in talks to open up Wembley Stadium and Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge to dish out more jabs which ministers hope will stop a spike of the mutant strain in the capital.
Professor Neil Ferguson today warned the Indian variant may make Covid vaccines weaker but revealed the strain could be less infectious than first feared.
The SAGE adviser – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ for his frightening modelling of the pandemic during last spring – said data had suggested the current jabs are less effective at stopping people from catching the mutant virus.
He claimed the Government’s scientists were ‘slightly concerned’ this could give the surging strain more opportunity to spread to vulnerable and unvaccinated groups.
But the University College London epidemiologist insisted there was a ‘good deal of confidence’ among SAGE that the vaccines will protect against severe disease and death, which would be crucial in protecting the NHS in the event of a third wave.
Matt Hancock revealed on Monday there were 2,300 cases of the Indian variant in the UK. This number is expected to rise again when officials publish an updated tally tomorrow.
The above graph is based on Sanger Institute data on cases identified in the community. It shows that while the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) remains dominant in the country, infections with the Indian variant (B.1.617.2) are rising rapidly. In the week to April 24 it made up barely three per cent of all infections spotted, but by May 8 it was behind 27 per cent
Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections
The growing red sections on graphs represent Indian variant cases surging in local authorities where it could be taking off. In these places it can already be seen edging out the Kent strain (orange) and scientists fear this suggests it is more infectious and could take over as the number one type of the virus in the UK. Note: Some areas, such as Stevenage, Broxbourne and Oadby are recording very few cases of the virus so changes may not constitute a trend
The Indian variant also appears to be edging out the Kent strain in various parts of London, where it already accounts for half of cases or more, but low numbers of infections mean this may an effect caused by small clusters of cases
WHERE HAD THE INDIAN VARIANT BEEN SPOTTED IN ENGLAND BY MAY 8?
MailOnline has crunched the numbers from the Sanger Institute, which is one of the UK’s biggest Covid checking labs, to establish what proportion of cases in each area are down to the Indian variant.
The Institute’s figures do not include cases picked up through surge testing and in travellers, meaning they reflect which troublesome strains of the virus are spreading in the community.
The proportions are based on the number of Indian variant cases by those from other variants identified over the two weeks to May 8, the latest available. Local authorities with no cases of the variant either had no cases identified from this particular strain or no data available.
The interactive map has been presented by upper tier local authority, which has amalgamated some hotspots into wider areas. For example, South Northants is shown as part of Northamptonshire.
Scientists can find out what variant is behind an infection by analysing a swab in a lab for key mutations.
MailOnline revealed yesterday there were 23 hotspots for the Indian variant in England alone.
Analysis of samples from people infected with Covid has revealed that by the week ending May 8, the variant accounted for eight in 10 cases in hotspots Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Sefton and Bedford, as well as in Chelmsford in Essex and Croydon in London.
Data suggests it is also dominant — accounting for more than half of all positive tests — in Nottingham, West Lancashire, Stevenage, Oadby and Wigston, South Northamptonshire, Broxbourne, Hillingdon, Brent, Camden, Hounslow, Greenwich, Bromley, Dartford, Sevenoaks, Canterbury, Rushmoor and Hart.
Fears were raised on Friday when SAGE said the Indian B.1.617.2 variant could be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the dominant Kent strain, considered the most virulent strain in the world.
It has already spread to at least four in 10 areas of England and accounts for one in five new infections since being imported to the UK in late March.
But Professor Ferguson said analysis by the expert group in the past few days had indicated the new variant is less transmissible than initially feared, giving a ‘glimmer of hope’ for the country’s lockdown-easing plans.
Asked about the Indian variant’s effect on vaccines, Professor Ferguson told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘It is something which is being studied very carefully.
‘There’s a good deal of confidence, and the data is being gathered, that the vaccines will protect against severe disease.
‘The effect of the Indian variant on the vaccines will be fairly marginal in terms of the protection against severe disease, so the vaccines protect individuals.
‘The thing we’re slightly concerned about is whether there’s an impact on the ability of vaccines to prevent infection or mild disease and, therefore, prevent transmission in the community.
‘There are some hints, and it’s not vaccine-specific at the moment, in the data of reduced vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission, but we really have to wait as more data is gathered to be definitive about that.
‘But of course it’s a concern because, if we don’t have the same action of vaccine at blocking transmission, it’s another way for the virus to amplify itself in the community.’
Even though the vaccines seem likely to prevent severe illness, there are fears that the new variant could spill into the 30million Britons who have still to get their jab.
There are also a very small number of people for whom the vaccines will not work, because the person is very frail or has a weakened immune system.
Professor Ferguson revealed that, since SAGE’s warning about the Indian variant last week, there was new data which suggested the strain could be less infectious than first feared.
He said the data was still uncertain because scientists are trying to disentangle whether the virus is extremely transmissible or whether there are behavioral and social factors at play.
Professor Ferguson added: ‘To explain to people why this is difficult [to work out exactly how infectious it is]… It’s because of how it was introduced into the country, it was introduced from overseas, principally into people with Indian ethnicity – who are at a higher chance of living in multi-generational households and often in quite deprived areas in high density housing.
‘So we’re trying to work out whether the rapid growth we’ve seen in Bolton is going to be typical of what we can expect elsewhere.
‘There’s a little bit of what I would say is a glimmer of hope, from the recent data, that while this virus does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data, so the curves are flattening a little.
‘But it will take more time for us to be definitive about that.’
Experts hope the vaccines have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations or death but can’t be sure until they see real-world statistics from hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn.
Whitehall insiders told The Times that sewage is also being monitored to find other flare-ups of the variant across the country.
If the spread of the variant does translate into increased pressure on the NHS, then England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ plans could be disrupted.
Professor Ferguson said it could be two or three weeks before data provided firm conclusions about the variant and what impact it will have on the lockdown easing roadmap.
And fellow Government adviser Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, said ‘we’ll get much more evidence’ over the next fortnight.
This is despite Boris Johnson suggesting yesterday that the picture would become clearer in ‘days’.
Mr Johnson said during Prime Minister’s questions today that vaccines ‘work well’ against the Indian variant, and that the strain may be less infectious than first feared.
The PM said there was ‘increasing confidence’ among SAGE that the current jabs are highly effective against all variants, including the B.1.617.2 strain which has put England’s June 21 freedom day’ in jeopardy.
Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions today, Mr Johnson said: ‘We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.’
It comes amid holiday chaos as the EU approves Covid passports but the Government still refuses to say whether overseas trips are allowed.
Brussels has approved a plan that its 27 member states can adopt a vaccine passport system that will allow tourists to visit without needing to test or quarantine as the Prime Minister urged UK holidaymakers not to travel until he updates his own ‘green list’.
The EU’s ambassadors signed off on the bloc’s travel plan this morning, with the heads of state expected to agree it as an official policy by the end of the week.
But with only Portugal on the UK’s ‘green list’, the PM has said Britons should not be heading to Europe, even if the EU’s vaccine passport scheme would allow it, warning flouting quarantine or testing they will be punished heavily.
He told PMQs: ‘If you travel to an amber list country for any emergency, any extreme reason that you have to, when you come back, you not only have to pay for all the tests but you have to self-isolate for 10 days – we will invigilate, we are invigilating it, and people who fail to obey the quarantine can face fines of up to £10,000’.
Ryanair today sought to cash in on the boom, offering £5 flights to ‘amber list’ destinations such as Barcelona, Dublin, Corfu, Berlin and dozens more cities and resorts across Europe through June, when the EU is expected to open up to tourists.
MailOnline can reveal that Tui, the UK’s biggest holiday company, has seen a surge in sales for ‘amber’ destinations in July and August. Most customers are booking breaks at resorts in southern Spain, the Balearics and the Canaries or on Greek islands such as Crete, Kos, and Corfu.
Critics have pointed out that the UK’s traffic light system is also adding to the confusion, because an amber light can mean stop or go, with people left ‘baffled’ by the PM’s decision to legalise holidays from May 17 only to urge them to stay at home.
And Skills Minister Gillian Keegan has further fuelled travel chaos by stressing holidays to ‘amber list’ countries are not illegal and warnings from Boris Johnson are only ‘guidance’, insisting the government was trusting the public to be ‘sensible’.
In a farrago of indecision, last night health minister Lord Bethell claimed travel anywhere abroad was ‘dangerous’ and foreign trips were ‘not for this year’, hours after Environment Secretary George Eustice suggested trips to ‘amber’ countries were acceptable if people wanted to see friends and family.
Virginia Messina, Senior Vice President of the World Travel & Tourism Council, told MailOnline: ‘Disagreements over whether or not you can travel to an “amber country” are baffling consumers and leaving the travel and tourism sector in disarray’.
Millions of Britons have already taken advantage of cheaper prices and booked to travel abroad to ‘amber list’ destinations this summer, with the majority planning to head to Spain, France, Greece and Italy, according to The Independent, despite facing ten days of quarantine and multiple tests.
Department of Health data showed another seven Covid deaths were recorded today, down by 65 per cent from last Tuesday when 20 were recorded. This was far below the darkest days of January when more than 1,000 people died a day
Britain also confirmed another 2,412 Covid infections, down two per cent on the same time last week
Britain yesterday recorded 65 per cent fewer coronavirus deaths than last week as seven more victims were recorded and another 2,412 positive tests were announced, down 2.5 per cent on last Tuesday.
The latest data shows more than 36.8million Britons have now received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, and 20.5million have had two doses. There were 106,733 first shots dished out yesterday, and 259,049 second inoculations.
Matt Hancock urged Britons to keep turning up for their jabs as the roll-out was expanded to 36 and 37-year-olds, with 35-year-olds expecting to get a call by the end of the week. He said: ‘The vaccine is saving lives so when it’s your turn, come forward and get the jab.’
Separate figures revealed today the B.1.617.2 strain had already spread to 40 per cent of areas in England, and now makes up at least one in five new infections across the country.
Mr Johnson desperately tried to play down rising fears the June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be ditched because of surging cases of the strain, stressing his roadmap out of lockdown was currently unchanged.
But he appeared to shift his language slightly by saying there is not yet ‘conclusive’ evidence that the exit strategy will need to be altered, and said things would be clearer ‘in a few days’.
‘We are looking at the epidemiology the whole time as it comes in and, at the moment, partly because we have built up such a wall of defences with the vaccination programme, I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the road map,’ he said.
‘But we’ve got to be cautious and we are keeping everything under very close observation. We’ll know a lot more in a few days’ time.’
England eased Covid restrictions on Monday to again allow pubs and restaurants to serve indoors, and people to welcome up to six friends and family members into their homes.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIAN VARIANTS?
Real name: B.1.617 — now divided into B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3
When and where was it discovered?
The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021 but the first cases appear to date back to October 2020.
Its presence in the UK was first announced by Public Health England on April 15. There have since been at least 520 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.
What mutations does it have?
It has at least 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China. The two main ones are named E484Q and L452R, although the most common version in Britain (.2) does not have E484Q.
Scientists suspect L425R can help it to transmit faster and E484Q helps it get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
There is also a mutation called T478K but researchers don’t yet know what it does.
Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?
Research is ongoing but British scientists currently believe it spreads at least as fast as the Kent variant and potentially faster, but it is unlikely to slip past vaccine immunity.
SAGE advisers said in a meeting last week: ‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 [Kent] variant.’
Dr Susan Hopkins, a boss at Public Health England, said: ‘We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this is a more transmissible variant.’
Expectations are that the current Covid vaccines will still protect people against the Indian variants.
Early research by the Gupta Lab at Cambridge University found there was a small reduction in vaccine effectiveness on the original Indian variant, but it found the jabs worked better against it than they did on the South African strain. The team have not yet tested the .2 strain, which is the most common in the UK.
A paper published by SAGE advisers recently suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants, and it is likely the others will provide very strong defence against severe illness, even if there is a risk of reinfection.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines.
How deadly is it?
Professor Peacock said: ‘There isn’t any evidence that this causes more severe disease. There’s just not enough data at the moment.’
Scientists say it is unlikely that the variant will be significantly more dangerous than the Kent strain.
This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly. The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and mix with others for as long as possible to achieve this.
Although there have been claims that the Kent variant is more deadly than the virus it replaced – the Government claimed it was around 30 per cent – there is still no conclusive evidence to show any one version of Covid is worse than another.
Is the variant affecting children and young adults more seriously?
Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid hospital admissions among people under 45, who have traditionally been less vulnerable to the disease.
There have been anecdotal reports from medics that young people make up two third of new patients in Delhi. In Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.
But this could be completely circumstantial – older people are more likely to shield themselves or to have been vaccinated – and there is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain.
The risk of children getting ill with Covid is still almost non-existent.
Why is it a ‘variant of concern’ and should we be worried?
Public Health England listed the variant as ‘of concern’ because cases are growing rapidly and it appears to be equally infectious – or potentially even more – than other strains in Britain.
Last time a faster-spreading variant was discovered it caused chaos because the outbreak exploded and hospitals came close to breaking point in January, with almost 50,000 people dying in the second wave.
But there is currently no reason to be alarmed. Scientists believe our current vaccines will still work against the variant, preventing people from getting seriously ill or dying in huge numbers.
If it spreads faster than Kent it could make it harder to contain and make the third wave bigger, increasing the number of hospital admissions and deaths among people who don’t get vaccinated or for whom vaccines don’t work, but the jabs should take the edge off for the majority of people.
A vaccine that can make vaccinated people very sick en masse would be a real crisis for Britain and could ’cause even greater suffering than we endured in January’, Boris Johnson warned today – but there are not yet any signs the Indian variant will be the one to do this.
How many cases have been detected in the UK?
According to data by PHE released on Friday, there are, at present, 520 confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK, from 202 over the last week.
The report also showed 261 cases of B.1.617.1 and nine cases of B.1.617.3.
The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, and London. PHE said around half of these cases are related to travel or contact with someone who has been abroad.
Surge testing is expected to be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission.
Is B.1.617.2 variant driving the second wave in India?
India reported 412,262 new Covid-19 cases and 3,980 Covid-19-related deaths on Thursday — both new single-day records.
In the past 30 days, the country has recorded 8.3million cases.
However, it remains unclear whether the new coronavirus variants are driving the second wave.
Experts say large gatherings, and lack of preventive measures such as mask-wearing or social distancing, are playing a key role in the spread of the virus.
Although India has the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, the country has partially or fully immunised less than 10 per cent of its 1.35billion people.