The UK is in a “very good position” against emerging coronavirus variants because vaccines are working and disease rates are falling, an expert said.
Their comments come after Public Health England (PHE) upgraded the strain first discovered in India – B.1.617.2 – to a variant of concern.
Sister Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that based on current knowledge, there is no evidence that the Indian variant causes more severe disease than the Kent variant, which is prevalent in the UK.
However, she cautioned that a lack of evidence is not the same as no evidence, and that there is simply not enough data at the moment.
I think that when I look at the overall landscape, I’m still very pleased that vaccines are working.
Professor Peacock said, “Public Health England has said that they have made an assessment of moderate confidence in terms of increased transmissibility, based on the mutation profile and supported by the evidence that this does indeed appear to compete with our current circulating variant, the Kent variant, and the growth estimate modeling suggests that transmissibility is at least equivalent to B.1.1.7.”
She added, “I think that when I look at the overall landscape, I’m still very pleased that the vaccines are working, that, you know, whatever is out there, the vaccines are working, and the disease rates are going down, so we’re in a very good position.
“As scientists, we just have to keep our eye on that so that we stay on that course.”
At a news conference, Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said laboratory analysis of an early version of the Indian variant – which does not appear in the U.K. – suggests that while the vaccines may protect against severe disease, there may be a greater degree of immune escape that will factor into estimates of transmissibility.
Prof. Peacock said, “But I think the point is that this is not a specific variant of concern that gets around hand washing and distancing and wearing a mask and staying in a well-ventilated place – I think that’s the most important thing.
“So, to me, the message is that we just keep doing these things, but we’re in a better position now because we have falling rates, and a good vaccination program that I would expect to just continue to protect, increasingly, our population.”
Prof. Gupta said, “Mortality rates and severity will be very low in the post-vaccine era, as long as we get the boosters right.
“Knowing which variants are out there is important for scientists and people in public health because there are people out there who are susceptible to this virus, for example, who can’t be vaccinated or whose immune responses are poor after vaccination, and that proportion of vulnerable people is larger than you might think.
“As we open up society now, we don’t want these variants that have more immune escape properties to be transmitted, because then the vulnerable people within the U.K. population are at greater risk, we think.”
Asked if there is a risk that the Indian variant could become the dominant strain in the U.K., Prof. Gupta said that is a possibility, but that with very low transmission in the country, there is an opening for a virus better adapted to vaccinated people to begin transmission.
He added, “It’s not going to cause severe disease or even death in the majority of people, so it could just become what’s circulating, but then it could also be the South African-origin variant.
“It all depends on the dynamics of transmission and how quickly we can detect it and close it off.”