LONDON – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that vaccination protocols would be changed to quickly give a second dose to people over 50 to combat the spread of a variant of coronavirus first discovered in India, a red flag for countries that do are easing restrictions even though their own vaccination campaigns are incomplete.
“We believe this variant is more transferable than the previous ones,” said Johnson. What remained unclear, he said, was how much. The infectiousness of the variant, first discovered in India, continues to be the subject of intense study, and some leading experts have said it is too early to assess its transmittability.
If it turns out to be much more transferable, he said, “We face some tough choices.” He added that there is no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause serious illness and death, and there is no evidence that vaccines against the variant are less effective at preventing serious illness and death.
While he said the country would not delay plans to ease restrictions on Monday, he warned that spreading the variant could force the government to change course.
“This new variant could seriously disrupt our progress,” he said at a press conference on Friday.
The number of cases with the variant known as B.1.617 rose from 520 last week to 1,313 this week in the UK, according to official statistics.
To what extent the variant has spread worldwide is unclear, since most countries lack the facilities for genomic monitoring used in England.
This monitoring feature has enabled health authorities in the UK to see the increase in affected variants faster than in other countries, and provides a kind of early warning system as a variant seen in one nation almost always shows up in another.
Most of the cases discovered in the UK are in the north-west of England. The focus was on Bolton, a town of nearly 200,000, which has one of the highest infection rates in the country and where health officials have warned of widespread community transmission of variant B.1.617. Some cases have also been reported in London. The rapid spread of the variant has led officials to debate accelerating dosing schedules and opening up access to hotspot shots to younger age groups.
National restrictions in England are due to be relaxed on Monday, with indoor dining and entertainment returning before it reopens fully in June. But officials have warned these plans could be in jeopardy.
In Scotland, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Friday plans to ease restrictions in Glasgow would be delayed for at least a week amid concerns over a surge in cases where officials said they might be driven off the variant.
Much is unknown about the new variant, but scientists fear it may have fueled the rise in cases in India and fueled outbreaks in neighboring countries.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response technical director, said a study of a limited number of patients that had not yet been peer-reviewed suggested that antibodies from vaccines or other variant infections may not be complete are present as effective against B.1.617. However, the agency said vaccines would likely remain strong enough to protect against serious illness and death.
British officials said the variant was more contagious than variant B.1.1.7, which was discovered in Kent, southeast of London last year and swept across the UK in the winter, forcing the country into one of the longest national lockdowns in the world. The variant B.1.1.7 has now been found in countries all over the world.
In the US, variant B.1.1.7 became the predominant version of the virus and now accounts for almost three quarters of all cases. But the US experts feared that they were just a slip-up in most of the country. The nationwide total of daily new cases began to decline in April and has fallen more than 85 percent since horrific highs in January.
The variant B.1.617 was found in virus samples from 44 countries and was classified as a variant of concern by the WHO this week. This means that there is evidence that it could affect diagnostics, treatments, or vaccines and needs to be closely monitored.
Understand India’s Covid Crisis
Christina Pagel, a member of a group of academics advising the government known as SAGE, said postponing the reopening next week would avoid “risking more uncertainty, more damaging closings and a longer recovery from a worse situation”.
“We have to learn from previous experiences,” said Dr. Pagel, Director of Clinical Operational Research at University College London, on Twitter.
The UK briefly reopened its economy late last year, then abruptly imposing new restrictions that stayed in place for months as it battled a deadly wave of infections.
In order to provide at least partial protection to as many people as possible as soon as possible, the UK distributed injections between doses for two-step coronavirus vaccines for up to 12 weeks after the first vaccines were approved in December. That was far longer than most other countries’ three or four week intervals.
Mr Johnson said those over 50 can now get a second dose after eight weeks.
“It’s more important than ever that people get the extra protection of a second dose,” he said.
The rapid rollout saved at least 11,700 lives and prevented 33,000 people from becoming seriously ill in England. This is based on research published by Public Health England on Friday.
Infections, serious illnesses and deaths have fallen across the UK. Only 17 deaths were reported on Friday.
However, the vaccination campaign has slowed since last month due to supply shortages and the need to distribute second doses. The number of daily first doses averaged 113,000 last month, well below the average of 350,000 daily doses administered in March.
Currently, only people over the age of 38 can be vaccinated.
It remains unclear whether the country has the vaccine supplies to quickly penetrate communities across the country and expedite vaccination of younger age groups.