Covid: How worried should we be by the rise in cases of the Indian variant?

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke explains how worried we should be by the rising cases of the India variant.

The latest numbers on the India variant are out. And they aren’t the news we’d be hoping for.

As of Thursday, there have been 3,424 cases recorded. Up 2,111 on the week before, 457 more cases than yesterday.It’s a worrying growth rate given more than 70% of the population now has some kind of immunity to Covid either due to vaccination or through previous infection. Now these numbers are tiny compared to where we have just been (we were averaging 62,000 cases a day in January) but looking at the speed they are going up has experts worried.

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The variant, arriving at the very moment we opened up after a crippling lockdown couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

"We’ve just opened up quite significantly in the last couple of days. I really hope we don’t regret that," said Professor of Epidemiology John Edmunds.

"I’m not expecting that we necessarily will. But this virus has hit us now and it is certainly spreading in some places. Whether it’s spreading more widely than that is a moot point at the moment. But I mean it is risky, the step we’ve taken is risky."

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It all comes down to two key questions.

First, how much more transmissible is the India variant it than the already pretty infectious “Kent” variant?

And second, is the protective effect of vaccinations or previous Covid infection reduced  against the variant, and if so, by how much.I put both of these questions to Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s SAGE advisory group. If I had to summarise his answer to both it would be: “We just don’t know yet.”

Covid cases by specimen date in Bolton, Greater Manchester. Credit: PHE

The rise in cases in hotspot areas like Bolton has been worryingly fast.

By nearly all estimates this suggests the virus is definitely more transmissible than the Kent strain. Possibly as much as 50% more. If that is the case, we’re in serious trouble. But even 20 or 30% greater transmissibility could be serious.

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"If you think, we’re in a race to immunise our population with the virus but we can’t go much faster because of supply constraints," Prof Edmunds said.

"But if the virus can transmit faster then of course it can affect many more people quicker."

But, what if the rise in cases in Bolton is not typical?

Could Bolton and a few other areas just be “superspreader” events linked large numbers of travellers returning with the variant in a short space of time?

The outbreaks in Blackburn with Darren and Bedford would suggest not — they too are seeing a continued rise in cases.

However Sefton, near Liverpool, tells a very different story. What looked like a worrying outbreak similar to those occurring the north west is now in decline.

Covid cases by specimen date in Sefton, Merseyside. Credit: PHE

Because the numbers are too low and too clustered to forecast any meaningful trends, all the experts can say is that they have to wait and see how outbreaks in other parts of the country play out.

Earlier today I went door-to-door in Nuneaton with teams from Warwickshire County Council as part of their surge testing efforts to contain nine confirmed cases of the Indian variant from turning into hundreds more.

While the affected areas are more deprived, and had higher rates of Covid infection before, vaccination rates in the area are high, the hope is, that could really limit further spread.

And what about the vaccine? Infections with the Indian variant have been highest in younger adults and children who’ve not yet been offered a vaccine so its hard to know whether there is an effect. 

Hospitalisations in Bolton have risen, but not elsewhere. Credit: PHE

Although the health secretary revealed yesterday some of the 25 people in hospital in Bolton had received one dose of the vaccine. I know one of those people is in intensive care. But, like with the infectiousness of the virus, it’s again too early to say.

"There are hints that this virus may be able to evade the immune response to some extent," Prof Edmunds tells me.

"There are only very preliminary hints. I mean I don’t think it’s anything, cause for alarm or anything like that.

"But that just emphasizes the importance of, yeah, Matt Hancock was saying, make sure you get your second dose."

'Make sure you get your second dose'

The situation we’re in now then, is essentially waiting to see how the India variant spreads.

In the meantime the NHS is rushing to speed up the roll-out of second vaccine doses. And time could be crucial.

If we’re really unlucky and the Indian variant is more transmissible AND is slightly resistant to our vaccines it will lead to an definite third wave of cases and deaths.

The more people we can vaccinate before then, the less the impact will be. Of course, if the vaccines aren’t a problem, and the variant is only slightly more transmissible, we may have very not very much to worry about at all.