The spread of the Indian COVID variant in the UK is “not looking good at all,” an expert has warned.
The variant, known as B1.617.2, was first detected in India, where a deadly surge of coronavirus has been overwhelming hospitals and killing thousands.
The strain has spread to the UK and has seen a sharp increase over the last two weeks – particularly in London and the North West.
Dr Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operation Research Unit at University College London, has warned that recent data shows transmission of the India variant is “incredibly concerning”.
"It's not looking good at all,” she tweeted, adding: “Ignoring problems when they're 'small' has been one of the MOST damaging things this whole pandemic.”
Pagel cited research by the Sanger Institute, which has looked into community transmission of the variant in the UK.
The figures show that in the two weeks up to 1 May, the B1.617.2 variant went from 1% to 11% of coronavirus cases in England.
The chart below shows the B1.1.7 – the Kent variant – in purple while the proportion of the strain from India – shown in green – has increased.
Pagel warns that the areas where the variant is concentrated include London, the East of England, the East Midlands, the South East and the North West, which is seeing the quickest rise.
She added that testing does not look like it’s increased so the B.1.617.2 variant “seems to be spreading quickly”.
“Numbers still low(ish) but for how much longer? What will happen after 17th May when so much more opens?” she warned.
It comes as England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty admitted that the UK must be “very careful” about the new variant.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Monday, Prof Whitty said: “It has gone up very sharply and I think that’s a reason for us to be very careful about it.”
Asked about whether the variant could cause a new wave, he said Public Health England (PHE) is working to identify cases while India has gone onto the red list of travel destinations so new people arriving from the country have been “significantly reduced”.
But he also warned: “What we know with all the variants is things can come out of a blue sky.
“You’re not expecting it and then something happens. That is what happened with the B1.1.7 and that has happened to India with this variant as well.
Watch: 'Massive effort' ongoing to contain spread of new variants
“So I think it would be very imprudent to say it is impossible. I think at this point in time, our view is this is a highly transmissible variant, at least as transmissible as the B1.1.7 variant."
Prof Whitty added that it is possible the Indian variant is more transmissible than the Kent variant.
But he also said that, at the moment, the scientists think the variant is less likely to be able to escape vaccination compared to some other variants – particularly the South African variant.
“We need to be cautious until we see clear data one way or the other,” he nevertheless warned.
His comments come after the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) released its own warning about the rise of the B.1.617.2 variant in England.
A summary of its COVID-19 meeting on 5 May said: “There has been a significant recent increase in prevalence of the B.1.617.2 variant, including some community transmission.
“PHE is currently prioritising case finding and containment for this variant. Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson announced on Monday that England’s lockdown easing will proceed as planned on 17 May.
This means people will be able to meet in groups of six or two households indoors, while pubs and restaurants can serve customers inside.
It follows a huge fall in deaths and cases across the UK with England recording zero new deaths for the first time since July on Monday.
The recent figures and success of the vaccine program have prompted questions in some quarters over whether lockdown restrictions and social distancing rules should be lifted sooner than planned.
But Downing Street has insisted that the government will stick to its roadmap out of lockdown.
The government said that this is an “irreversible” lifting of lockdown rules although the rapid rise of the new B.1.617.2 variant is adding to concerns that the UK could face another wave of the virus later this year.
Watch: India's COVID deaths hit record high