There is no surge testing being carried out in the UK for the Indian COVID-19 variants, despite the government claiming that it would do so. The coronavirus variant known as B.1.617 is a “variant under investigation” in the UK, with B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3.
Scientists are worried about these three variants because they contain either one or two mutations in their spike protein that may help them evade the body’s immune responses and be more transmissible.
On April 19, the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock had said that surge testing would be carried out for the India variant. Public Health England (PHE) told The Guardian that instead of doing this, it is employing “targeted testing”. This, it said is more specific – for example testing the contacts of people known to have the India variants, or people who may have been in the same areas as someone with one of those variants.
Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 strategic response director at PHE, said they are continuing to investigate clusters of linked cases across England. “PHE health protection teams are implementing tailored public health actions to detect cases of the variant and mitigate the impact in local communities.” She said enhanced contact tracing and testing is the most effective way of limiting spread.
“This precautionary approach ensures that our public health response remains agile and targeted,” Dr Hopkins explained. “There is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe disease or renders the vaccines currently deployed any less effective, but more work is underway to understand that better.”
However, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, has called for faster action as some of the Indian variants are known to spread rapidly. “Looking at the most recent data, if surge testing has not yet already started then B.1.617.2 may already be spreading too widely for surge testing to be able to make a sufficient impact on reducing its further spread,” he said.
Prof Ravi Gupta, of the University of Cambridge, preliminary data from his team suggests the two key spike mutations seen in B.1.617 means antibodies generated by one dose of the Pfizer vaccine have a four to six-fold lower ability to neutralize the variant compared with the pre-existing form of the virus, even when the mutations appeared together. The team said B.1.617 may be more transmissible than the pre-existing form of the virus.
Furthermore, data from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, 823 sequences of the India variants have been detected up to April 28. This includes 260 of B.1.617 and 552 of B.1.617.2. This exceeds the 744 sequences of the variant first detected in South Africa, which has been designated a “variant of concern”.