Growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus variant first identified in India may force the United Kingdom to tweak its Covid-19 vaccination program to prioritize people in the most affected areas, a top health official said Friday.
Data released by Public Health England (PHE) on Thursday showed the number of confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK has more than doubled in just a week, rising from 520 to 1,313 infections. The vast majority of cases were identified in England, with only a handful occurring in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
UK Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the country would “flex” its vaccine rollout in response to the growth of the variant. Younger people in certain areas, such as parts of northwest England and London, could be vaccinated sooner than scheduled, and officials could also shorten the time gap between first and second shots, Zahawi said.
“There are concerns in areas like Bolton and Formby and of course parts of London that the B.1.617.2 variant … could be more infectious,” Zahawi told British broadcaster Sky News. He added that the government wouldn’t rule anything out “in terms of whatever action we take regionally or nationally.”
“We have been doing some work on multi-generational households where we vaccinate the whole household, over-18s, and of course the older groups who are already eligible,” Zahawi said. “Or bringing forward the second dose, we look at all of that and be guided by the clinicians as to what we do on that.”
The Indian strain was named a “variant of concern” in the UK last week. That designation is used for virus strains that are more transmissible, cause more severe disease, fail to respond to treatment, evade immune response or fail to be diagnosed by standard tests. In the case of B.1.617.2, PHE has said that the only indications so far are that the strain is more transmissible.
“There is currently insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India cause more severe disease or render the vaccines currently deployed any less effective,” the health body said in a statement.
As of Friday, B.1.617.2 was the second most common variant in new cases in the UK, after the B.1.1.7 strain. This variant was first identified in southeast England last year and went on to become dominant in the UK, across Europe and in the United States.
Current measures taken against the Indian strain in the UK include mobile testing, door-to-door testing and vaccine buses, PHE said in a statement on Thursday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted Thursday that his government was “anxious” about the new variant. Its scientific advisers met that day to discuss the strain, amid growing concerns it could jeopardize England’s plan to lift all legal limits on social contact from June 21.
The government said that the next stage of the opening-up plan — to ease most social distancing rules in England on Monday — remains in place, as the country’s vaccination program continues.
Wales, however, has decided to pause the easing because of the spread of the variant. Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford told Sky News that while indoor dining would reopen as planned on May 17, authorities had previously been considering lifting additional restrictions. They have now decided to hold off.
More than two-thirds of all adults in the UK have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with more than a third now fully vaccinated. Analysis by PHE released on Friday showed that the vaccination program prevented 11,700 deaths among people aged 60 and older in England up to the end of April.