British officials said on Friday they plan to change vaccination protocols and reintroduce local lockdowns to stem the spread of a variant of the coronavirus first detected in India, a warning sign for countries easing restrictions even if their own vaccination campaigns are incomplete.
The number of cases involving the variant, known as B1.617, has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week in Britain, according to official statistics.
The extent to which the variant has spread around the world is unclear, as most countries do not have the genomic surveillance capabilities used in England.
This oversight capacity has enabled health officials Britain to spot the rise of worrisome variants faster than other countries, providing some sort of early warning system, as a variant seen in one country almost invariably appears in others.
Most of the cases detected in Britain are in the north-west of England. The focus was on Bolton, a town of nearly 200,000 that has one of the highest infection rates in the country and where health officials have warned of widespread community transmission of the disease. variant. Some cases have also been reported in London.
Domestic restrictions in England are expected to be relaxed on Monday, with indoor dining and entertainment returning, but officials have warned those plans could be in jeopardy.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that the reopening next week would take place, but he said he was “worried” about the new variant. “There may be things we need to do locally,” he added.
Nadhim Zahawi, the government minister responsible for vaccinations, told the BBC on Friday morning that “we will not take anything off the table.”
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for coronavirus response at the World Health Organization, said a study involving a limited number of patients, which had not yet been reviewed peer review, suggested that antibodies from vaccines or infections with other variants might not be as effective against B.1.617. The agency said, however, that the vaccines would likely remain potent enough to provide protection against serious illness and death.
British officials have said the variant appears to be more contagious than that detected last year in Kent, south-east London, which swept across Britain in the winter, forcing the country to one of the longest national lockdowns to the world. The British variant has now been found in countries around the world.
The variant first detected in India was found in a sample of the virus from 44 countries, the WHO said this week.
The United Nations agency has appointed variant B.1.617 as variant of concern.
Christina Pagel, a member of a group of scientists advising the government known as SAGE, said postponing the reopening to next week would avoid “risking more uncertainty, more damaging shutdowns and a greater recovery. long of a worse situation ”.
“We need to learn from the experience gained,” says Dr Pagel, director of the Clinical Operations Research Unit at the University of London, said on twitter.
Britain briefly reopened its economy late last year, only to abruptly impose new restrictions that remained in place for months as it battled a deadly wave of infections.
To try to offer at least partial protection to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, Britain has spaced injections between doses of the two-stage coronavirus vaccine for up to 12 weeks after approval of the first vaccines in December. It was much longer than the three or four week interval employed by most other countries.
The rapid deployment has saved at least 11,700 lives and prevented 33,000 people from falling seriously ill in England, according to a study released by Public Health England on Friday.
But the campaign has slowed since last month due to supply shortages and the need to start distributing second doses. The number of first daily doses on average last month was 113,000, well below the average of 350,000 daily doses given in March.
Only those over 38 are currently eligible for vaccination.
Officials suggested on Friday that the spread of the B1.617 variant could force a change in strategy: in areas where the variant is spreading, they may increase the second doses to provide stronger protection and allow younger people – at the moment, only those who are at least 38 years old are eligible to be vaccinated – in multigenerational households to be vaccinated.
But it is not known if the country has stocks of vaccines to move quickly.
Mr Zahawi, the Minister for Vaccines, said Britain would “adapt the vaccination program based on clinical advice”. He also urged people to regularly use free PCR tests available since last month, and to “isolate, isolate, isolate” if they test positive for the coronavirus.