LONDON – The British government is stepping up its vaccination campaign as authorities estimate that up to three-quarters of new cases of Covid-19 in the country could be the result of a variant of the coronavirus first identified in India.
The number of hospitalizations in the UK has increased and the number of cases has risen by 20% over the past week, albeit starting from a low base as the variant takes hold in parts of the country, mainly in young people who have not yet received two doses of the vaccine.
The spread of the variant threatens to delay a planned lifting of social distancing restrictions next month and provide an early test of whether widespread vaccination can pave the way for a return to normal life.
“Clearly, vaccines are already having a big impact,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week. “The question is: what size? How reliable are vaccine fortifications? “
Britain’s neighbors are watching nervously. Several European countries, where vaccine deployments are not as advanced as in the UK, have placed restrictions on UK visitors to try to prevent the variant, known as B.1.617.2, from s’ install. France said as of May 31, only essential travel from the UK was allowed. Germany has imposed a two-week quarantine on British visitors. Austria bans direct flights from the UK from June 1.
Scientists are not sure how much the Indian variant is more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. More precise data is expected to be presented ahead of the government’s decision to lift all remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England on June 21.
The increase in UK cases linked to B.1.617.2 is a test of whether vaccines can successfully break the link between infection and hospitalization even if a more aggressive mutation of the coronavirus sets in.
Relaxing the rules to allow people to mingle at pubs and nightclubs was always going to lead to an increase in cases, said Adam Finn, who sits on Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. “The big question mark is how disconnected this number of cases has become from critical illness,” he said. Adding a more heritable variant to the mix only increases that uncertainty, he said.
According to British scientists, receiving two doses of the vaccine is largely effective in protecting against the variant. Britain has inoculated its people at a rapid rate, focusing on giving as many first doses of the vaccine to as many people as possible. So far, 74% of the population has received their first dose of the vaccine and 47% their second injection. The vaccination campaign has lowered the number of Covid-19 cases and brought down daily single-digit virus deaths by more than a thousand a day in January.
But UK officials are affected by B.1.617.2 for two reasons. First, British scientists advising the government estimate that it could be up to 50% more transmissible than the previously dominant B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the UK last year and s has since spread around the world.
Second, a single vaccine injection protects less effectively against variant B.1.617.2 than against variant B.1.1.7. According to Public Health England, the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing symptomatic illnesses after an injection drops to around 33% for B.1.617.2 compared to 50% for B.1.1.7. However, after a second injection, the efficacy of the vaccine against B.1.617.2 increases to 81%.
The government is rushing to complete its vaccination program in the most affected areas. Bolton, a town in north-west England where cases are increasing rapidly, has received an additional 18,000 vaccines in recent days. According to government data, 70% of adults in Bolton received a first dose and 42% a second dose.
The government has reduced the time between vaccine doses from 12 weeks to eight weeks.
The first signs are positive. In Bolton, for example, only five of 49 people hospitalized with Covid-19 had received two vaccines.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said on Friday she was delaying easing restrictions in Glasgow to stem the spread of the variant from India, but added that there were signs the number of cases was starting to rise. drop in the city. Lockdown policies are decided independently by the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The new variant was sown by travelers from India, a country with deep historical ties to the UK. Clusters of cases have since multiplied rapidly in some areas.
While nearly the entire population aged 70 and over has received two doses, that figure drops to around 30% for those 50 to 59, according to analysis from OpenSafely, a platform that analyzes health records. from the country.
However, officials are heartened by data showing that people, especially young people, are increasingly eager to be vaccinated. All UK adults are expected to be offered at least one shot of the vaccine by the end of July.
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The rise of the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK is proving a dilemma for the government. Over the past 18 months, Mr Johnson has repeatedly suspended the imposition of social distancing restrictions to stem the spread of the virus, only to then announce deep lockdowns as the virus spiraled out of control. Britain has suffered the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe. Mr Johnson said the last lockdown must be the last.
Recently, the Prime Minister warned against announcing a return to normal life. The result may be that some restrictions, such as the recommendation to work from home, are maintained in England after June 21, scientists say.
Meanwhile, officials and scientists are keeping a close eye on the data. “We may be in a big mess, but we’re not sure,” Professor Finn said.
Write to Max Colchester at [email protected]
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