Daily Mail Online: LONDON, England – There is a ‘realistic possibility’ the Indian COVID variant is far more transmissible than the Kent strain and could lead to up to a thousand deaths a day by summer, the Government’s scientists warned last night.
The SPI-M subgroup said it was confident the mutant B.1.617.2 strain was more infectious than the currently dominant variant, and that it could spread up to 50 percent more easily.
It warned that pressing on with easing all lockdown restrictions on June 21, as is currently the plan for England, could lead to more than 10,000 more people being hospitalised with the disease daily by Autumn.
The bleak forecasts were presented to No10 this week after cases of the strain more than doubled in seven days and four people were found to have died from the variant.
Scientists advising SAGE this month estimated what a more transmissible strain could do to the country after lockdown is lifted in June and claimed it could trigger up to 20,000 hospital admissions per day in a worst-case scenario. January’s peak, which nearly crippled the NHS, was around 3,800 a day in England.
A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that if it was 40 percent more transmissible the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily admissions, and a 50 percent increase could lead to 10,000 per day. Less grisly numbers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested a 50 percent rise could lead to 4,000 per day.
But there are still glimmers of hope, with experts saying it remains unclear whether the current variant spreads significantly quicker or whether it is a coincidence it sprung up in places that already had high transmission or simply emerged in clusters linked to people flying into the country from abroad.
Vaccines are still likely to work against the strain, research suggests, and there are no signs it is more deadly. But faster transmission means more people getting infected and more opportunities for ‘vaccine failure’ – when people get sick even after having a jab, which may happen to between five and 15 percent of people.
The variant still only makes up a minority of cases nationwide – around 10 percent – but it is growing quickly and particularly in hotspots such as Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford and Sefton in Merseyside, where it is confirmed to account for more than half of all positive tests.
Experts have warned that vaccines are “almost certainly less effective” at reducing the spread of the “highly transmissible” Indian COVID variant – as the British Medical Association urges ‘utmost caution’ with lockdown easing next week.
Deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation Dr Anthony Harnden today said that countless over 50s still don’t have the protection of a jab – while BMA public health medicine committee co-chairman Dr Richard Jarvis warned of a spike in cases in unvaccinated young people when lockdown restrictions lift on Monday.
Meanwhile, Scottish National Party health spokesperson Dr Philippa Whitford warned you ‘cannot out-vaccinate the variant’ due to the time taken to build immunity once someone gets the jab.
She stressed that letting the virus ‘run rampant’ in young people who are not yet vaccinated could lead to the creation of more deadly variants.
Even so, Boris Johnson announced last night that Britain will press ahead with plans for indoor drinking and dining next week – with ministers today insisting the rule change is the “safe and right thing to do”.
Government scientists revealed in minutes released on Friday night that the variant could “realistically” be 50 percent more infectious than the Kent strain – which models project could lead to 1,000 deaths a day, as well as 10,000 daily hospitalisations, by the summer.
The Prime Minister has pledged to “throw everything we have at this task” and is set to send the Army into Britain’s worst variant hotspots to hand out tests in a bid to slow the spread.
Adding to concerns, Dr Harnden today revealed that Britain’s vaccine rollout – hailed as the key to preventing another wave – may not stop the virus infecting the vulnerable.
He said the jab is not only “less effective against mild disease”, it is “almost certainly less effective against transmission” – partly because immunisation only begins three weeks after the vaccine is given.
He said the UK’s vaccine rollout is focusing on keeping hospitalisation and death figures low by vaccinating the vulnerable – who are more likely to see serious symptoms – to not overwhelm the NHS.
But Dr Harnden stressed that some over 50s still haven’t had the jab, and urged local authorities to “get out there and vaccinate their unvaccinated people”.
Second doses of vaccines will be accelerated for the over-50s and the clinically vulnerable across the country, so they are given eight weeks after the first dose instead of the current 12 weeks.
At present the variant is spreading among unvaccinated younger age groups while cases remain lower among older vaccinated people.
Although the most vulnerable people in Britain are protected against the variant by the vaccine, if it is allowed to spread uncontrolled among unvaccinated younger people it could still cause thousands of deaths and hospitalisations in a third wave potentially more serious than Britain’s first and second.
SAGE calculations upon which lockdown easing were based factored in the Kent variant but not a faster spreading strain.
Dr Whitford told Radio 4’s Any Questions?: “If you think its a speeding train that’s heading down the track towards you, you get out of the way now. You don’t wait to see whether it changes on to another line.”
She added: “Yes, at the beginning there was no handbook. People were finding their way. But last summer, Scotland particularly but actually most of the UK got cases right down and then everyone was encourage to go on holiday.
“And we already brought new strains in and the second wave kicked off.
“There was a delay in six weeks of the Prime Minister putting lockdown in the south east of England and that is what allowed the Kent variant to evolve. And that hasn’t just taken over in the UK, that is what drove the second and third waves across Europe.
“And now we have this Indian variant which there is clearly a significant suspicion that it is more infectious yet again and that is going to affect younger people.
“And its fine to say they’re not in hospital. And the vaccine does appear to be helping people.
“We’re not seeing a surge in deaths or hospitalisations, but if you allow [the Indian variant] to run rampant in younger people, you will actually generate more domestic new variants and you mustn’t forget long Covid is affecting younger people as well.”
Dr Whitford stressed that the ‘vaccine doesn’t work for two to three weeks’, adding: “This variant is trebling every week. You cannot out-vaccinate the variant.”
She urged the government to put the most-affected areas into “tighter restrictions” to slow the spread of the Indian variant because jabs take two to three weeks to be effective.
BMA public health medicine committee co-chairman Dr Jarvis today said the number of people still without the protection of a vaccine – and the rapid spread of the Indian variant – means the ‘utmost caution’ should be taken when lockdown restrictions ease.
The Prime Minister will send in troops to help surge-testing efforts in Bolton – which is fighting a spike in infections almost ten times higher than the UK average – and neighbouring Blackburn.
Images from Bolton today showed deserted streets as locals opted to stay indoors as cases surged. Those who did venture out were seen wearing masks.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Dr Harnden said: “This is a clearly more-transmissible virus, this B617 which originated in India.
“And the vaccines may be less effective against mild disease but we don’t think they’re less effective against severe disease. In combination with being less effective against mild disease, they’re almost certainly less effective against transmission.
“We’ve got a very successful programme at the moment in preventing severe disease and we have had a key focus on hospitalisations and deaths.
“So we believe vaccinating those in at-risk groups who are currently unvaccinated, and bringing forward that second dose in the over 50s by four weeks, is a better strategy.
“And the reason that we think this is because if we immunise 18 to 29 year olds for instance in these areas, we would be taking vaccines from somebody else in the country.
“The vaccines may be less effective against transmission – as I said – and actually the immunity takes a number of weeks to develop.
“So it’s not a very good strategy for preventing transmission.”
He stressed that the country can “cope with infection rates in the community providing we don’t get our hospitals overwhelmed”.