ON 17 MAY, many people in the UK regained some of the freedoms surrendered to the coronavirus pandemic. But there are concerns that the relaxation has come too soon, with B.1.617.2 – a variant first identified in India – set to become the dominant strain in England over the coming week.
England, Wales and most of Scotland have now proceeded in line with step three of the UK government’s plan for easing lockdown. That means most businesses can fully reopen, including pubs and restaurants, entertainment venues, museums, galleries and gyms. People can welcome others into their homes, and the ban on foreign travel has been lifted to some extent.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged caution and said that B.1.617.2 “could pose a serious disruption to our progress”. A complete lifting of England’s restrictions, currently pencilled in for 21 June, may be delayed.
Some scientists think that step three may already be a step too far. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told BBC Radio 4 that he wouldn’t be meeting people indoors just yet.
The key question is whether vaccination has “decoupled” infection from severe illness, he said, which would mean that a rise in infections doesn’t lead to a surge of hospitalisations, deaths and long covid. “To be honest, we don’t know that today,” he said, and warned that if B.1.617.2 proves to be resistant to vaccines, the relaxation may have to be reversed.
In February, the UK government set itself four tests that must be passed in order to continue on the planned pathway for easing of restrictions in England. The fourth of these is “assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern”.
According to Kit Yates at the University of Bath, UK, who is a member of the alternative Independent SAGE group, this test is “potentially failing”. B.1.617.2 is booming in many parts of the UK, he says.
According to modelling done by SAGE, a variant that is more transmissible or substantially escapes immunity could lead to a surge of hospitalisations even bigger than the UK’s second wave in January, which at its peak was seeing more than 50,000 new infections every day.
Most scientists agree that B.1.617.2 is more transmissible, says Yates, “although it hasn’t been entirely confirmed yet. The good news is that there’s no firm evidence that vaccines don’t work against it.”
UK health secretary Matt Hancock said on 16 May that “new, very early” lab data from the University of Oxford suggested that the vaccines work against B.1.617.2. The university confirmed the existence of the data, but said it couldn’t give further details.
There is laboratory evidence that B.1.617.1, a closely related variant, can evade immunity to some extent, says Christina Pagel of University College London (UCL) and Independent SAGE.
In response to the threat, the UK government said it would shorten the gap between the first and second doses of vaccine from 12 weeks to eight weeks for people over the age of 50 and for those who are clinically vulnerable.
But Anthony Costello at UCL says that what was needed was a functioning test-and-trace system and regional powers to impose measures such as local lockdowns. The response in England has been too centralised, he says.
The Scottish government decided that restrictions wouldn’t be relaxed in Glasgow because of concerns over B.1.617.2, and in Moray after a surge in cases there. Northern Ireland will review its restrictions on 10 June.
“The B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India could pose a serious disruption to our progress”