The variant first detected in India is forcing the U.K. to rethink its approach.
The British authorities said on Friday that they are considering changing vaccination protocols and reintroducing local lockdowns to stem the spread of a coronavirus variant first detected in India, a warning sign for countries that are easing restrictions even though their own vaccination campaigns are incomplete.
The numbers of cases involving the variant, known as B.1.617, rose from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week in Britain, according to official statistics.
The extent to which the variant has spread globally is unclear, because most countries lack the genomic surveillance capabilities employed in England.
That surveillance capability has allowed health officials in Britain to spot the rise of concerning variants more quickly than other nations, offering an early warning system of sorts as a variant seen in one nation almost invariably pops up in others.
Most cases detected in Britain are in northwestern England. The focus has been on Bolton, a town of nearly 200,000 that has one of the country’s highest rates of infection and where health officials have warned of widespread community transmission of the variant. Some cases have also been reported in London. The rapid spread of the variant has led officials to debate speeding up dosing schedules and opening up access to shots in hot spots to younger age groups.
National restrictions in England are scheduled to be eased on Monday, with indoor dining and entertainment returning, but officials have cautioned that those plans might be in danger.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that the reopening next week would go ahead, but he said he was “anxious” about the new variant. “There may be things that we have to do locally,” he added.
Nadhim Zahawi, the government minister in charge of vaccinations, told the BBC on Friday morning that, “We will take nothing off the table.”
Coronavirus Variants and Mutations
Tracking recent mutations, variants and lineages.
Much is unknown about the new variant, but scientists fear it may have driven the rise of cases in India and could fuel outbreaks in neighboring countries.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead of the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response, said a study of a limited number of patients, which had not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that antibodies from vaccines or infections with other variants might not be quite as effective against B.1.617. The agency said, however, that vaccines were likely to remain potent enough to provide protection from serious illness and death.
British officials have said the variant appears to be more contagious than one detected last year in Kent, southeast of London, which swept across Britain in the winter, forcing the country into one of the world’s longest national lockdowns. The British variant has now been found in countries around the world.
The variant first detected in India has been found in virus sample from 44 countries, the W.H.O. said this week.
The U.N. agency has designated the B.1.617 variant as a variant of concern.
Christina Pagel, a member of a group of scientists advising the government, known as SAGE, said postponing next week’s reopening would avoid “risking more uncertainty, more damaging closures and longer recovery from a worse situation.”
Understand the Covid Crisis in India
- What to Know: Shortages of oxygen and hospital beds, along with low vaccination rates, have added to the surge in illness and deaths in India.
- Case Counts: Experts say the true death count far exceeds official figures. This chart illustrates how known Covid cases have grown over the last few months across the country.
- Travel Bans: The U.S. has begun to restrict travel from India, and Australia has banned all incoming travel from the country, including among its own citizens.
- How to Help: Donors around the world are giving money for meals, medical expenses, P.P.E. and oxygen tanks, among other essential supplies.
“We need to learn from previous experience,” Dr. Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, said on Twitter.
Britain briefly reopened its economy at the end of last year, only to abruptly impose new restrictions that remained in place for months as it fought a deadly wave of infections.
In an attempt to offer at least partial protection to as many people as quickly as possible, Britain spaced injections between doses for two-stage coronavirus vaccines up to 12 weeks after the first vaccines were approved in December. That was far longer than the three- or four-week interval employed by most other countries.
The speedy rollout saved at least 11,700 lives and prevented 33,000 people from becoming seriously ill in England, according to research released by Public Health England on Friday.
But the campaign has slowed down since last month because of supply shortages and the need to start distributing second doses. The number of daily first doses on average last month was 113,000, far below the average of 350,000 daily doses administered in March.
Only those over 38-years-old are currently eligible for vaccination.
Officials suggested Friday that the spread of the B1.617 variant may force a shift in strategy: In areas where the variant is spreading, they may move up the second doses in order to provide stronger protection and allow younger people in multigenerational households to be inoculated.
But it was unclear whether the country had the vaccine supplies on hand to move rapidly.
Mr. Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said Britain would “flex the vaccine program according to the clinical advice.” He also urged people to regularly use free P.C.R. tests that have been available since last month, and to “isolate, isolate, isolate” if they test positive for the coronavirus.
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