The latest new variant of the novel coronavirus, known as the India variant, could be as much as 50% more transmissible than the original, according to the British government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage).
The British government recently announced a new set of relaxed measures to come into effect in June, spurred by falling Covid numbers and an advanced vaccination programme.
But the country is now facing an upsurge in cases caused by the variant known to virologists as B.1.617.2, and to the media and public as the India variant.
The variant is widespread in India, where the Covid situation has become catastrophic. But it is also spreading like wildfire in the UK, according to Sage.
“There are now multiple fast-growing clusters of this variant in the UK, with the largest in the Northwest of England,” sage writes in the minutes of its latest meeting on Thursday.
The UK had already spawned a variant of its own, B.1.1.7 or the Kent variant. That appeared in September last year in a sample collected in Kent, and was detected in Greater London the very next day.
According to a Reuters timeline, it had covered England and reached as far north as Glasgow by the end of the year, with over 16,000 cases. By February this year, that number had tripled.
The hotbeds of the India variant in the UK seem to have little in common, Sage writes.
“The places where transmission of this variant is occurring have different characteristics to each other, and do not appear to be experiencing similar growth of other variants (i.e., B.1.1.7),” the group says referring to India and Kent respectively.
“It is therefore highly likely that this variant is more transmissible than B.1.1.7, and it is a realistic possibility that it is as much as 50% more transmissible.”
And the advisory group offers a stark warning. If the thesis of increased transmissibility turns out to be correct, the grand liberation promised for June could fall apart.
“If this variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to B.1.1.7, sensitivity analyses in the modelling of the roadmap in England indicate that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone (with no other local, regional, or national changes to measures) would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks).”