Boris says 'increasing confidence' vaccines work against Indian strain

Boris says there’s ‘increasing confidence’ Covid vaccines work against Indian variant and Prof Lockdown Neil Ferguson claims there’s a ‘glimmer of hope’ mutant strain may be LESS infectious than first feared

  • Mr Johnson said he’d looked at fresh data this morning which suggested vaccines work well against variant
  • Prominent SAGE scientist Professor Neil Ferguson said analysis suggested strain also not as virulent as feared
  • Comes despite cases of Indian variant quadrupling in last fortnight and 40% of English areas reporting a case 

Vaccines work well against the Indian coronavirus variant and the strain may be less infectious than first feared, Boris Johnson and one of his top scientific advisers revealed today.

The PM said there was ‘increasing confidence’ among SAGE that the current jabs are highly effective against all variants, including the B.1.617.2 strain which has put England’s June 21 freedom day’ in jeopardy.

Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions today, Mr Johnson said: ‘We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.’

Fears were raised on Friday when SAGE said the Indian B.1.617.2 strain could be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the dominant Kent strain, considered the most virulent strain in the world.

But SAGE epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson said analysis over the past few days indicated the strain was less transmissible than initially feared, providing a ‘glimmer of hope’ for the country’s lockdown-easing plans. 

The scientist – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ for his frightening modelling of the pandemic during last spring – said whether or not the country could come out of restrictions next month was ‘in the balance’ and it might not be clear for weeks how much of a threat the Indian variant poses.

He reiterated that there was a ‘good deal of confidence’ the vaccines will protect against severe disease and death from the Indian variant but warned the jabs were slightly weaker at stopping people catching and falling mildly ill.

The comments came as the Prime Minister faces a revolt from his own MPs at the prospect of the unlocking timetable being pushed back. One Cabinet minister told MailOnline there would be ‘serious trouble’ from the Tory benches if he does not stick to the date for lifting almost all restrictions.

And the Tory council leader in Bolton raised alarm about ‘civil unrest’ in the town if it is placed under a local lockdown.

The government has admitted a review of social distancing rules that had been expected this month could be delayed as they wrestle with the response to the latest variant. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is due to hold a press conference in Downing Street at 5pm.

Despite the threat of the Indian variant to the UK only being made public last week, reports today suggest the Government was warned about the danger it posed to the UK four weeks ago.

At that time, the strain was already decimating hospitals in India’s major cities and yet thousands of travellers were still flying into Britain from the country every week.

Ministers met for crisis talks two weeks later to thrash out plans to deal with the strain, with some advisors warning against going ahead with stage three of the roadmap, Sky News reports. 

The Indian variant has already spread to at least four in 10 areas of England and accounts for one in five new infections since being imported to the UK in late March.  

There have been signs of rising optimism in Government, buoyed by the sight of people queuing for jabs in hotspot areas like Bolton, and official data showing that the epidemic is continuing to shrink.

The latest figures revealed that, despite concern about the Indian variant, average daily cases are down by 2.6 per cent on the previous week.

Daily hospital admissions in England fell to just 70. And the total number of Covid patients in hospital in England now stands at just 798, the lowest figure since the middle of September.


The Prime Minister said there was ‘increasing confidence’ among SAGE that the current jabs are highly effective against all variants, including the B.1.617.2 strain which has put England’s June 21 freedom day’ in jeopardy. SAGE epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson said analysis over the past few days indicated the strain was less transmissible than initially feared, giving a ‘glimmer of hope’ for the country’s lockdown-easing plans

While the Indian variant is spreading rapidly in pockets of the country, 60 per cent of local authorities in England have yet to record a case (shown in grey). But it is likely the variant has spread even further than the map suggests because the data is 10 days out of date. Experts have said they expect it to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant in the coming weeks and months 

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

The growing red sections on graphs represent Indian variant cases surging in local authorities where it could be taking off. In these places it can already be seen edging out the Kent strain (orange) and scientists fear this suggests it is more infectious and could take over as the number one type of the virus in the UK. Note: Some areas, such as Stevenage, Broxbourne and Oadby are recording very few cases of the virus so changes may not constitute a trend

The Indian variant also appears to be edging out the Kent strain in various parts of London, where it already accounts for half of cases or more, but low numbers of infections mean this may an effect caused by small clusters of cases

 

 

Mr Johnson tried to strike a positive tone at PMQs this afternoon, saying he had looked at the data again this morning and there was ‘increasing confidence’ that vaccines work against ‘all variants, including the Indian variant’. 

Asked by Labour leader Keir Starmer whether mutant strains was the biggest risk for the loosening, Mr Johnson said: ‘I certainly think that is one of the issues that we must face.’

He added: ‘We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.’ 

The EU today took a huge step towards allowing fully vaccinated Britons to visit restriction-free this summer as it was revealed five million people have already booked European breaks despite Boris Johnson declaring: ‘You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday’. 

Brussels has approved a plan that its 27 member states can adopt a vaccine passport system that will allow tourists to visit without needing to test or quarantine as the Prime Minister urged UK holidaymakers not to travel until he updates his own ‘green list’.

The EU’s ambassadors signed off on the bloc’s travel plan this morning, with the heads of state expected to agree it as an official policy by the end of the week.

But with only Portugal on the UK’s ‘green list’, the PM has said Britons should not be heading to Europe, even if the EU’s vaccine passport scheme would allow it.

He told PMQs: ‘If you travel to an amber list country for any emergency, any extreme reason that you have to, when you come back, you not only have to pay for all the tests but you have to self-isolate for 10 days – we will invigilate, we are invigilating it, and people who fail to obey the quarantine can face fines of up to £10,000′.

Ryanair today sought to cash in on the boom, offering £5 flights to ‘amber list’ destinations such as Barcelona, Dublin, Corfu, Berlin and dozens more cities and resorts across Europe through June, when the EU is expected to open up to tourists.

MailOnline can reveal that Tui, the UK’s biggest holiday company, has seen a surge in sales for ‘amber’ destinations in July and August.  Most customers are booking breaks at resorts in southern Spain, the Balearics and the Canaries or on Greek islands such as Crete, Kos, and Corfu.

Critics have pointed out that the UK’s traffic light system is also adding to the confusion, because an amber light can mean stop or go, with people left ‘baffled’ by the PM’s decision to legalise holidays from May 17 only to urge them to stay at home.

And Skills Minister Gillian Keegan has further fuelled travel chaos by stressing holidays to ‘amber list’ countries are not illegal and warnings from Boris Johnson are only ‘guidance’, insisting the government was trusting the public to be ‘sensible’. 

In a farrago of indecision, last night health minister Lord Bethell claimed travel anywhere abroad was ‘dangerous’ and foreign trips were ‘not for this year’, hours after Environment Secretary George Eustice suggested trips to ‘amber’ countries were acceptable if people wanted to see friends and family.

Virginia Messina, Senior Vice President of the World Travel & Tourism Council, told MailOnline: ‘Disagreements over whether or not you can travel to an “amber country” are baffling consumers and leaving the travel and tourism sector in disarray’. 

Millions of Britons have already taken advantage of cheaper prices and booked to travel abroad to ‘amber list’ destinations this summer, with the majority planning to head to Spain, France, Greece and Italy, according to The Independent, despite facing ten days of quarantine and multiple tests.

Many are gambling on the destinations turning ‘green’ by the time they are due to go.   

The comments came as the PM faces a revolt from his own MPs at the prospect of the unlocking timetable being pushed back.

One Cabinet minister told MailOnline there would be ‘serious trouble’ from the Tory benches if he does not stick to the date for lifting almost all restrictions. 

And the Tory council leader in Bolton raised alarm about ‘civil unrest’ in the town if it is placed under a local lockdown.  

The government has admitted a review of social distancing rules that had been expected this month could be delayed as they wrestle with the response to the latest variant. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is due to hold a press conference in Downing Street at 5pm.   

Pressed during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for his ‘hunch’ about whether the next stage of the roadmap would go ahead on schedule, Prof Ferguson said: ‘I think that is being actively considered. 

‘It is very much in the balance. The data collected in the next two-three weeks will determine that.’  

He said it was not yet clear how much more transmissible the Indian variant is, but added: ‘Certainly, it is much easier to deal with 20 per cent, even 30 per cent (more transmissibility) than it would be 50 per cent or more.’

During a round of interviews this morning, Professor Ferguson said data had suggested the current jabs were less effective at stopping people from catching the mutant virus.

He claimed the Government’s scientists were ‘slightly concerned’ this could give the surging strain more opportunity to spread to vulnerable and unvaccinated groups.

But the University College London epidemiologist insisted there was a ‘good deal of confidence’ among SAGE that the vaccines will protect against severe disease and death, which would be crucial in protecting the NHS in the event of a third wave.

Asked about the Indian variant’s effect on vaccines, Professor Ferguson told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘It is something which is being studied very carefully. 

‘There’s a good deal of confidence, and the data is being gathered, that the vaccines will protect against severe disease. 

‘The effect of the Indian variant on the vaccines will be fairly marginal in terms of the protection against severe disease, so the vaccines protect individuals. 

‘The thing we’re slightly concerned about is whether there’s an impact on the ability of vaccines to prevent infection or mild disease and, therefore, prevent transmission in the community. 

‘There are some hints, and it’s not vaccine-specific at the moment, in the data of reduced vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission, but we really have to wait as more data is gathered to be definitive about that. 

‘But of course it’s a concern because, if we don’t have the same action of vaccine at blocking transmission, it’s another way for the virus to amplify itself in the community.’  

Even though the vaccines seem likely to prevent severe illness, there are fears that the new variant could spill into the 30million Britons who have still to get their jab.

There are also a very small number of people for whom the vaccines will not work, because the person is very frail or has a weakened immune system. 

Professor Ferguson revealed that, since SAGE’s warning about the Indian variant last week, there was new data which suggested the strain could be less infectious than first feared.

He said the data was still uncertain because scientists are trying to disentangle whether the virus is extremely transmissible or whether there are behavioral and social factors at play.

Professor Ferguson added: ‘To explain to people why this is difficult [to work out exactly how infectious it is]… It’s because of how it was introduced into the country, it was introduced from overseas, principally into people with Indian ethnicity – who are at a higher chance of living in multi-generational households and often in quite deprived areas in high density housing.

‘So we’re trying to work out whether the rapid growth we’ve seen in Bolton is going to be typical of what we can expect elsewhere.

A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that  (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July – up to around 45,000 – compared to the current 845

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible – which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

Chris Whitty FINALLY takes a break! Chief medic is on first holiday in two years (but don’t worry, it’s in the UK and he’s still checking up on the Indian variant) 

Chris Whitty is on holiday for the first time in two years – but is still tracking the Indian variant of coronavirus.

The chief medical officer is on leave this week after overseeing the frantic efforts to tackle the pandemic, MailOnline understands.

However, he has opted to stay in the UK rather than take advantage of the lifting of the ban on non-essential travel.

Prof Whitty is also said to be in ‘daily contact’ with his office and still keeping careful tabs on developments with the Indian strain. ‘He is having a break as much as he can,’ one source said.

The chief medical officer’s deputies are on duty, with Jonathan Van-Tam set to appear at a Downing Street press conference alongside Health Secretary Matt Hancock and new Test & Trace chief Jenny Harries this evening.

A Cabinet minister told MailOnline: ‘It is his first break in two years.

‘He has earned a lot of respect for the way he has handled things.

‘It is not easy because politicians are used to getting shouted at, but people like Whitty arrive in a position because their careers take them there.’

Prof Whitty has become one of the best known figures in government over the course of the crisis, fronting adverts and regularly fielding questions at press briefings with the PM and science chief Sir Patrick Vallance.

Polls have suggested the 55-year-old – a practising consultant at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and the Hospital for Tropical Diseases – is among the most trusted public figures.

In February Prof Whitty was widely praised for his calm response when a video emerged of a teenager berating him in the street.

He self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms in March last year, at around the same time Mr Johnson tested positive.

Prof Whitty is due to give a lecture on health trends this evening, but it has been pre-recorded.

The government is wrestling with how to respond to the latest mutant strain, with Boris Johnson considering whether the next stage of unlocking on June 21 can go ahead.

‘There’s a little bit of what I would say is a glimmer of hope, from the recent data, that while this virus does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data, so the curves are flattening a little.

‘But it will take more time for us to be definitive about that.’

He said even if the strain was found to be 20 per cent more infectious than the Kent one, this would be ‘much easier to deal with’ than if the figure was 50 per cent. 

Ministers think clearer data on the Indian variant will come in next week, in the form of hospital pressures. It can take up to a week for infected people to fall ill enough to need to be admitted to the NHS for treatment. 

Given that the virus has only began to spread rapidly over the past fortnight, hospital figures remain low.

Experts hope the vaccines have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations or death but can’t be sure until they see real-world statistics from hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn.

Whitehall insiders told The Times that sewage is also being monitored to find other flare-ups of the variant across the country.

If the spread of the variant does translate into increased pressure on the NHS, then England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ plans could be disrupted.

Professor Ferguson said it could be two or three weeks before data provided firm conclusions about the variant and what impact it will have on the lockdown easing roadmap.

And fellow Government adviser Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, said ‘we’ll get much more evidence’ over the next fortnight.

This is despite Boris Johnson suggesting yesterday that the picture would become clearer in ‘days’.

It comes as Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth today called for the Government to publish its internal review of its handling of the Covid crisis.

He said it would help the UK ‘prepare’ for the next stage of the pandemic and ensure better scrutiny of No10’s response to the Indian variant.

Labour will table a motion today to require the Government to publish the internal review. Mr Ashworth told Times Radio: ‘We need to learn lessons and prepare for the next stage.

A separate report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the pandemic had ‘laid bare existing fault lines within society and has exacerbated inequalities’.

Epidemiologist Dr Tildesley suggested that people should ‘ration’ hugs while there is still uncertainty around the variant first identified in India.

The member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which advises the Government, told BBC Breakfast: ‘We’ve had a relaxation of restrictions on Monday, which is really great news for people’s mental health and wellbeing and for businesses and so forth because we’ve had really tough restrictions for a long period of time.

‘But we still need to remember that there are some measures in place.

‘We’ve been able to relax controls but we still need to be a little bit cautious.

‘For example with hugging, again great for people’s wellbeing, but I suspect what we really need to do is maybe ration that a little — I’m not going to stop my children from hugging their grandparents for example — but I think we need to be a little bit careful.’

He added that people should not think that the epidemic is over, adding: ‘Hopefully we can get back to normality sooner rather than later.

‘But we need to ease into that so we need to be a little bit cautious over the coming weeks just to make sure that we don’t get a resurgence of cases.’

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was warned there could be ‘unrest’ in Bolton if the Government brings in local lockdowns to contain the Indian variant.

David Greenhalgh, Conservative leader at Bolton Council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve been there before and they don’t work – not in a dense conurbation like Greater Manchester.

‘This happened before, the spread increased because people travelled 50 yards across the county boundary to access hospitality that they can’t in their own area.’

Asked if he had told Mr Hancock there would be civil unrest, he said: ‘I do think there is a danger of unrest.

‘There is a great deal of resentment. Bolton was… we were disproportionately affected really since July last year.

‘Even when our rates were coming down, we still remained in lockdown when other areas’ rates were higher than ours, so there was a build up of resentment.

‘The people of Bolton have a great spirit and they come together when times are difficult.

‘But this would be a very, very difficult situation to manage I believe – if we went into a lockdown that we have personal experience of as a town, which did not work.’

Mr Greenhalgh said there was no sign yet that cases were coming under control in Bolton, adding that ‘our cases are still rising’.

He continued: ‘I think that was, to be honest, expected. We are putting all the measures in that we can at the moment.

‘We have community spread, there’s no doubt about that, and we’re holding back a variant that would appear – although the evidence is still being gathered – to be a little bit more transmissible, easily transmissible.

‘The majority of our cases are in very much our younger age groups – primary school, secondary school and in their 20s.

‘We still haven’t got an increase in hospitalisation and severe illness, which is hugely welcome, those figures still remain low.

‘We’re doing everything we can. The Government has sent in surge vaccinations, surge testing… We’re doing everything we can, but I think the next two weeks we will still see our cases rising.’

Figures for the seven days to May 14 show that Bolton continues to have the highest rate of new Covid cases per 100,000 people in England.

It had 867 new cases in the seven days – the equivalent of 301.5 cases per 100,000 people. This is up from 150.2 in the seven days to May 7.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIAN VARIANTS? 

Real name: B.1.617 — now divided into B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3

When and where was it discovered? 

The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021 but the first cases appear to date back to October 2020. 

Its presence in the UK was first announced by Public Health England on April 15. There have since been at least 520 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.  

What mutations does it have? 

It has at least 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China. The two main ones are named E484Q and L452R, although the most common version in Britain (.2) does not have E484Q.

Scientists suspect L425R can help it to transmit faster and E484Q helps it get past immune cells made in response to older variants.

There is also a mutation called T478K but researchers don’t yet know what it does.

Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines? 

Research is ongoing but British scientists currently believe it spreads at least as fast as the Kent variant and potentially faster, but it is unlikely to slip past vaccine immunity.

SAGE advisers said in a meeting last week: ‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 [Kent] variant.’

Dr Susan Hopkins, a boss at Public Health England, said: ‘We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this is a more transmissible variant.’ 

Expectations are that the current Covid vaccines will still protect people against the Indian variants.

Early research by the Gupta Lab at Cambridge University found there was a small reduction in vaccine effectiveness on the original Indian variant, but it found the jabs worked better against it than they did on the South African strain. The team have not yet tested the .2 strain, which is the most common in the UK. 

A paper published by SAGE advisers recently suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants, and it is likely the others will provide very strong defence against severe illness, even if there is a risk of reinfection.

Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines.

How deadly is it? 

Professor Peacock said: ‘There isn’t any evidence that this causes more severe disease. There’s just not enough data at the moment.’ 

Scientists say it is unlikely that the variant will be significantly more dangerous than the Kent strain. 

This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly. The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and mix with others for as long as possible to achieve this.  

Although there have been claims that the Kent variant is more deadly than the virus it replaced – the Government claimed it was around 30 per cent – there is still no conclusive evidence to show any one version of Covid is worse than another.    

Is the variant affecting children and young adults more seriously?  

Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid hospital admissions among people under 45, who have traditionally been less vulnerable to the disease.

There have been anecdotal reports from medics that young people make up two third of new patients in Delhi. In Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.

But this could be completely circumstantial – older people are more likely to shield themselves or to have been vaccinated – and there is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain. 

The risk of children getting ill with Covid is still almost non-existent.  

Why is it a ‘variant of concern’ and should we be worried?

Public Health England listed the variant as ‘of concern’ because cases are growing rapidly and it appears to be equally infectious – or potentially even more – than other strains in Britain.

Last time a faster-spreading variant was discovered it caused chaos because the outbreak exploded and hospitals came close to breaking point in January, with almost 50,000 people dying in the second wave.

But there is currently no reason to be alarmed. Scientists believe our current vaccines will still work against the variant, preventing people from getting seriously ill or dying in huge numbers.

If it spreads faster than Kent it could make it harder to contain and make the third wave bigger, increasing the number of hospital admissions and deaths among people who don’t get vaccinated or for whom vaccines don’t work, but the jabs should take the edge off for the majority of people. 

A vaccine that can make vaccinated people very sick en masse would be a real crisis for Britain and could ’cause even greater suffering than we endured in January’, Boris Johnson warned on Thursday – but there are not yet any signs the Indian variant will be the one to do this.

How many cases have been detected in the UK?

According to data by PHE released on Friday, there are, at present, 520 confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK, from 202 over the last week.

The report also showed 261 cases of B.1.617.1 and nine cases of B.1.617.3.

The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, and London. PHE said around half of these cases are related to travel or contact with someone who has been abroad. 

Surge testing is expected to be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission.

Is B.1.617.2 variant driving the second wave in India?

India reported 412,262 new Covid-19 cases and 3,980 Covid-19-related deaths on Thursday — both new single-day records.

In the past 30 days, the country has recorded 8.3million cases.

However, it remains unclear whether the new coronavirus variants are driving the second wave.

Experts say large gatherings, and lack of preventive measures such as mask-wearing or social distancing, are playing a key role in the spread of the virus.

Although India has the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, the country has partially or fully immunised less than 10 per cent of its 1.35billion people. 

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