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Indian variant of Covid-19 virus confirmed in Cambridge

The Indian variant of the Covid-19 virus has been found in Cambridge, Public Health England (PHE) has confirmed.

The variant was identified using sequencing following a rise in cases in Cambridge and were associated with recent travel to India.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19. Graphic: PA (47179798)
Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19. Graphic: PA (47179798)

PHE said the number of cases was “small” and it was working with the county and city councils to prevent further transmission through contact tracing and testing.

Cllr Lewis Hebert, the leader of Cambridge City Council, said the variant was brought into Cambridge on April 11, and infected only about 12, thanks to “superhuman” efforts from the city council and public health teams to isolate individuals and eliminate it.

The Indian variant has been associated with significant rises in case numbers in other parts of the country, particularly in the North West and London, and there have been concerns that its spread may put the brakes on plans to ease lockdown restrictions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a press conference on Friday with the UK’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, confirming some of the measures being taken to stop its spread, such as speeding up the second vaccination for the most vulnerable, and surge testing.

Dr David Edwards, consultant in health protection at PHE East, said: “Following a rise in the number of cases of coronavirus in Cambridge, Public Health England (PHE), Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council have been working together with local communities to help stop further transmission of the virus.

“The contacts and movements of confirmed positive cases have been robustly traced and all those who are deemed at risk of infection have been advised to self-isolate and are being offered testing.

“Through our investigations, we have found a small number of cases of the Covid-19 India variant (VUI-21APR-02). These are associated with recent travel to India. We are aware that there are cases elsewhere in the country and further work is taking place to help us understand how this variant behaves.

“We continue to ask our communities to be aware of the symptoms of Covid and follow the guidance and advice, hands, face, space and fresh air to help protect yourself and those around you. In particular, we urge people not to mix socially indoors with anyone outside of their household or bubble at any time.”

Testing has identified the Indian variant of Covid-19 is in Cambridge
Testing has identified the Indian variant of Covid-19 is in Cambridge

PHE did not confirmed where in Cambridge the cases of the variant were found.

Latest PHE data shows 10 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Trumpington area for the week ending May 8 and four in Petersfield, although the 22 cases across the city that week was actually 12 down on the previous seven days. The infection rate was 17.6 cases per 100,000 people, which was lower than the national average of 21.9 for the period.

Daily case data shows 17 further cases of Covid-19 in Cambridge in the five days from May 9-13.

The Cambridge-led COG-UK Consortium is helping to track the spread of the variant and others across the country, with sequencing carried out at Wellcome Sanger Institute and other regional labs.

Some 800,000 PCR tests have been sent to 15 separate areas of England, including parts of London and Merseyside.

Bolton has the highest rate of any local area in England, with 553 new cases in the seven days to May 9 – the equivalent of 192.3 per 100,000 people. This is up from 84.9 in the seven days to May 2.

In Bolton mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door PCR testing has been offered to 22,000 residents, while a vaccine bus has been set up to increase uptake among those who are eligible and a rapid response team of 100 nurses, public health advisers and environmental health officers has been sent in.

Erewash in Derbyshire has the second highest rate in the country, but this has been driven by an outbreak at Wilsthorpe Academy in the town of Long Eaton, according to Derbyshire County Council’s director for public health, Dean Wallace.

Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire has the third highest, up from 54.1 to 107.6, with 161 new cases, followed by Bedford where the rate has more than doubled from 39.8 to 86, with 149 new cases.

Covid-19 vaccination data. Graphic: PA (47179803)
Covid-19 vaccination data. Graphic: PA (47179803)

The leader of Bolton Council said there had been discussions with the government about the introduction of a surge vaccination plan for younger age groups.

David Greenhalgh told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One: “This is an issue of capacity but we have had very, very constructive talks and certainly all the soundings are is that they are looking to progress that as soon as possible.

“The vast majority of our cases are in their teens, 20s and 30s at the moment.

“If we can get vaccinations to (those aged) 16-plus, which are licensed by Pfizer, then it will make a total transformation of transmission as it moves forward.

“I think realistically that would start in targeted areas where we see the predominance (of the virus) currently.”

Public Health England (PHE) data shows the variant has been responsible for four deaths as of May 12.

Public Health England's data on the distribution of variants as of May 12, 2021 (47180625)
Public Health England's data on the distribution of variants as of May 12, 2021 (47180625)

The government has also been looking at ways to “flex” the rollout of vaccines in the worst-hit areas, including potentially vaccinating everyone in multi-generational households from 18-year-olds to grandparents.

The variant is believed to be at least as transmissible as the Kent variant that ran rife in winter.

It comes in three forms - B.1.617.1, known as variant 1, B.1.617.2, variant 2, which is the one surging in the UK, and B.1.617.3, also known as variant 3.

There is no current evidence that the variant spreading here causes more severe disease.

Work is ongoing to understand the effectiveness of vaccines against it, amid concerns that they may contain L452R mutation thought to give some degree of vaccine resistance, but it is expected that the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines will confer protection against severe disease and death.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the public must help suppress the Covid-19 infection rate if the planned lifting of restrictions in June is to stay on track.

He told LBC: “The way we don’t have to do that is by everybody doing their bit, by taking the two tests a week, doing your PCR test in those areas, and to isolate, isolate, isolate.

“We have got to break the cycle of infection, because one of those big tests was infection rates have to be suppressed, and the other big test is variants.

“If those cause a problem, then the tests will fail. The four tests have to be met for June 21.”

A Covid-19 testing centre. Picture: PA (47179805)
A Covid-19 testing centre. Picture: PA (47179805)

Mr Zahawi said the seven-day rolling average figures for infection show a 12.4 per cent rise, but hospital admissions are down by 7.9 per cent.

“That is good news because it tells you that the vaccines are clearly working in terms of hospitalisation and severe infections… but the infection rate is what is concerning, which is why we have to surge test and then isolate,” he said.

Asked on BBC Breakfast what has stopped vaccines being given to younger age groups in affected areas now, Mr Zahawi said it takes three weeks to build protection from a first dose and to have any effect on transmission of the virus. This suggests surge vaccines may not take effect quickly enough.

Bedford Borough Council has been among those calling for vaccines to be made available for over-16s in the face of the variant.

And Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told BBC Breakfast: “We do say to the government they do need to go further now and allow those extra vaccine supplies to be used in vaccinating the younger working-age population, the student population.

“That is what is needed if we are to make the most decisive and effective intervention into this situation that we can right now.

“We recognise the pressure on vaccine supplies all over the country but we have been moving at a pace where we have been treating all areas equally, and I think the time has now come to recognise areas with the highest case rate do need to be able to move more quickly down the ages.”

He said there are “younger people in places like Bolton who are in quite insecure work, so if they become ill they fear they won’t be paid if they have to take time off work” for self-isolation.

He said he does not support local lockdowns which “really didn’t work” last year, adding: “We are in a different situation this year because, even though we are seeing spread of the Indian variant in Bolton, we are not seeing the same numbers of people going into hospital because obviously older people are more protected now.

“So we don’t need to have the same response that we had last year. We do believe if we move quickly on vaccination we can take away any risk of a local lockdown.”

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