UK ‘looking carefully’ at Indian coronavirus variant

Public Health England escalated one of three Indian coronavirus variants to a 'variant of concern' Friday

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday told reporters the U.K. was "looking carefully" at a circulating coronavirus variant first detected in India, as public health officials work to better characterize the strain.

A reporter questioned Johnson over the variant, given news Public Health England (PHE) Friday escalated the strain to a "variant of concern" following an uptick in cases and "evidence of community transmission."

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"What we’re doing there is making sure that we are absolutely ruthless in the surge testing, in the door-to-door tracking of any contacts," Johnson said. "At the moment we’re looking carefully at the way the Indian variant seems to function. We don’t see any evidence that it is resistant to the vaccines or in any way more dangerous."

The health agency cited evidence suggesting the variant is "at least as transmissible" as the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant, which is believed to spread 50% more easily than the ancestral strain.  The U.K. variant has already been identified as the "most common lineage" in the U.S., according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"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," PHE wrote in a statement posted Friday. "PHE is carrying out laboratory testing, in collaboration with academic and international partners to better understand the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus."

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The agency noted variant cases of the Indian variant subtype, VOC-21APR-02, have increased from 202 to 520 in the last week, with nearly half of cases tied to travel. Most of the cases were identified in the North West and London areas, though the variant has spread across the country, officials said.

Two other subtypes of variants first identified in India are not "variants of concern" but these strains, VUI-21APR-01 and VUI-21APR-03, are under review while researchers work to understand why the subtypes behave differently, the health agency said.

"Surge and community testing is an effective way of finding and isolating new cases of variants and will be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission," PHE wrote. "This is in addition to the comprehensive work that is already underway to trace and test all contacts of cases. Everyone in the affected areas will be asked to get a test, even if they don’t have symptoms. If someone tests positive, they must isolate to stop the spread."