United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said that the country’s plans to ease on Covid-19 restrictions may face “serious disruption” due to the infectious B.1.617 coronavirus strain first detected in India.
“I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four [of easing curbs] in June,” the prime minister said during a briefing. “At this stage, there are some important unknowns...we believe this variant is more transmissible than the previous one...in other words it passes more easily from person to person...but we don’t know by how much.”
Johnson said that he had been advised that if the B.1.617 coronavirus was less transmissible then the country’s existing plans related to Covid-19 could continue. However, if the strain was found to be “significantly more transmissible” then certain “hard choices” would have to be made.
The British prime minister said more information would be known in the coming days. “The good news is that so far we have no evidence to suggest that our vaccines would be less effective in protecting people against severe illness and hospitalisation,” Johnson added.
The United Kingdom government also announced that it would “accelerate the second doses” to those above 50 years and the clinically vulnerable and decrease the interval between the shots to eight weeks from the current 12 weeks.
Johnson also urged those who had not received their first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine to come forward and get them, especially those over 40.
The B.1.617 variant contains two key mutations to the outer “spike” portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, according to Reuters. The World Health Organization said the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India last December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020.
The variant has already spread to other countries, and many nations have moved to cut or restrict travel to and from India.
India’s health ministry on Wednesday objected to media reports calling the infectious B.1.617 coronavirus strain the “Indian variant”, saying even the World Health Organization had not used the term in its guidelines.
The world health body also said that it did not identify viruses or variants with names of countries where they were first reported. “We refer to them by their scientific names and request all to do the same for consistency,” the global health body tweeted.
On Tuesday, WHO’s representative to India, Roderico H Ofrin, said that vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics continue to be effective against the B.1.617 variant.
On May 10, the global health body had classified it as a “variant of concern,” which also includes mutations first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa. “There is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid, had said.
India on Saturday reported 3,26,098 new Covid-19 cases and 3,890 fatalities in 24 hours. This pushed the country’s case count to 2,43,72,907 and toll to 2,66,207 since the pandemic began in January. There are 36,73,802 active cases and 2,04,32,898 patients have recovered from the disease so far.