Surge tests are not being carried out in England for the coronavirus variants first detected in India, although the government says it would be deployed, the Guardian has learned.
The coronavirus variant known as B.1.617 is a ‘variant under investigation’ in the UK, with its close relatives B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3. All three worry scientists because they contain one or two mutations in their spike protein that can help them evade the body’s immune responses and be more transmissible.
If these concerns are confirmed, they can be referred to as “Variants of Concern”. The Guardian understands that Public Health England will not be performing a surge test – where people with particular postcodes are asked to take a test – until the variants are given that designation. This despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock who said on April 19 that surge tests would be performed for the Indian variant.
PHE told the Guardian that instead of doing this, it was using “targeted testing.” It’s more specific – for example, testing contacts of people known to have the India variants, or people who may have been in the same regions as someone with one of these variants.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE, said: ‘We are continuing to investigate clusters of related cases across England. PES health protection teams implement appropriate public health actions to detect cases of the variant and mitigate the impact in local communities. Improved contact tracing and testing is the most effective way to limit the spread.
“This precautionary approach ensures that our public health response remains agile and focused,” she added. “There is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe disease or makes currently deployed vaccines less effective, but more work is underway to better understand this. “
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that with the rapid spread of some of the Indian variants much greater and faster action was needed.
“Looking at the most recent data, if the surge testing has not yet started, then B.1.617.2 may already be spreading too widely for the surge testing to have a sufficient impact on reducing the voltage. its spread, ”he said.
According to Professor Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge, preliminary data of his team suggests that the two major peak mutations seen in B.1.617 mean that the antibodies generated by a dose of Pfizer vaccine have a four- to six-fold lower capacity to neutralize the variant compared to the pre-existing form of the virus, even when the mutations appeared together. This is less than the 10-fold reduction produced by the E484K mutation seen in some other variants, such as the one first detected in South Africa.
The team further adds that B.1.617 may be more transmissible than the pre-existing form of the virus.
According to data from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, 823 Indian variant sequences have been detected up to April 28, including 260 from B.1.617 and 552 from B.1.617.2. This exceeds the 744 sequences of the variant first detected in South Africa, which has been designated ‘variant of concern’.
It is not clear whether the footage in this dataset is primarily from travelers entering the country. But experts say data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Covid-19 genomic surveillance paints a very worrying picture.
This dataset includes genomes sequenced for general surveillance, but not from surge or travel-related tests, and suggests that 10% of Covid cases sequenced in London are now linked to B.1.617 or its close relatives.
Professor Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operations research unit at University College London, said the data was consistent with the most recent report on PHE variants suggesting that around 25% of cases of Indian variants could be community cases. She added that the rapid increase in cases meant surge testing was more appropriate than improved testing and tracing.
“They absolutely need to do surge testing because it seems to be spreading quickly in the community,” she said.