The Indian coronavirus (Covid-19) mutation could “scupper” the UK’s march to freedom, a leading scientist has warned. This despite the lockdown and vaccine programme leading to cases falling to a seven-month low.
Coronavirus infections across the UK dropped to the lowest level since the autumn, according to the latest figures. But a professor of immunology has called for Britain to be on its guard against a third wave. It comes after 77 reported domestic cases of another possible vaccine-busting mutation.
Public Health England (PHE) reported 73 domestic cases of the B.1.617 variant, first discovered in India. A further four cases were identified in Scotland.
Imperial College’s professor Danny Altmann said that as a result, those arriving into the country from India should be subject to a hotel quarantine. This is necessary if the UK is to shut out variants that could set back the prime minister’s lockdown easing plans.
Altmann said he found it “mystifying” and “slightly confounding” that those flying in from India didn’t have to quarantine. The country isn’t currently on the government’s “red list” for travel. This is the list of countries which if people have travelled to in the previous 10 days, they’re refused entry to the UK.
But despite the warnings, Downing Street has insisted Boris Johnson’s trip to India later in April will go ahead. It’s his first major international visit since the Brexit trade deal with Brussels. Meanwhile, the group advising ministers on vaccine deployment recommended that pregnant women should be offered a coronavirus jab at the same time as the rest of the population.
Vaccines for pregnant women
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advises ministers on the order of priority for the vaccine rollout. It had previously only recommended that coronavirus jabs be offered to pregnant women when their risk of exposure to the virus is high. So e.g. in the case of health workers, or if a woman has underlying health conditions.
Around one in 480 people in private households in England had coronavirus in the week leading up to 10 April. That’s according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is the lowest figure since the week up to 19 September 2020. Infection rates in Wales, Scotland, and north of Ireland followed a similar trend of depreciating numbers, ONS data showed.
But the decline in infection levels across the UK marked a contrast to rising case rates in other parts of the world.
“Worrying” infection rates
World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said coronavirus rates globally were “worrying”. India recorded more than 217,000 daily cases on 16 April, pushing its total since the pandemic began past 14.2 million.
Altmann said the discovery of the Indian variant in the UK should warrant India being placed on the UK’s “red list”.
Officials have designated India’s version a variant under investigation (VUI). Whereas the Manaus (Brazil) or South African variants have been designated variants of concern (VOC).
But Altmann said he suspected the Indian mutation would escalate to a variant of concern. That’s because it holds properties that allow it to evade the coronavirus vaccines currently on offer, like the South African variant. And it was also more transmissible, in a similar fashion to the Californian variant.
Altmann told the BBC:
I think we should be terribly concerned about it. They (variants of concern) are things that can most scupper our escape plan at the moment and give us a third wave. They are a worry.
British or Irish nationals, or people with UK residency, are able to return from red list countries but must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.
Johnson in India
No 10 said Johnson’s visit to India “is still happening later this month”. But, as already announced this week, would be “slightly shorter” than the initial four-day planned trip. And most of the meetings will take place in a single day.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the government’s red list of travel ban countries is “under constant review”, when asked why India didn’t feature on it. Meanwhile, the JCVI said there were “no specific safety concerns” identified with “any brand of Covid-19 vaccines” in relation to pregnancy.
The JCVI said data from the US showed around 90,000 pregnant women had received jabs. These were mainly the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The women were vaccinated “without any safety concerns being raised”.
As a result, the committee said it advised that it was “preferable” for pregnant women in the UK to be offered these two vaccines where available.