Surge testing is not being carried out in England for coronavirus variants first detected in India, despite the government claiming it would be, the Guardian has learned.
The coronavirus variant known as B.1.617 is a “variant under investigation” in the UK, together with its close relatives B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3. All three are worrying scientists because they contain either one or two mutations in their spike protein that may help them evade the body’s immune responses and be more transmissible.
Should such worries be borne out, they may be designated “variants of concern”. The Guardian understands Public Health England will not surge test – where people within particular postcodes are asked to take a test – until the variants are given that designation. This is despite the health secretary, Matt Hancock, stating on 19 April that surge testing would be carried out for the India variant.
PHE told the Guardian that instead of doing this, it is employing “targeted testing”. This is more specific – for example testing the contacts of people known to have the India variants, or people who may have been in the same areas as someone with one of those variants.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at PHE, said: “We are continuing to investigate clusters of linked cases across England. PHE health protection teams are implementing tailored public health actions to detect cases of the variant and mitigate the impact in local communities. Enhanced contact tracing and testing is the most effective way of limiting spread.
“This precautionary approach ensures that our public health response remains agile and targeted,” she added. “There is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe disease or renders the vaccines currently deployed any less effective but more work is under way to understand that better.”
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that with some of the Indian variants spreading rapidly, much greater and faster action was needed.
“Looking at the most recent data, if surge testing has not yet already started then B.1.617.2 may already be spreading too widely for surge testing to be able to make a sufficient impact on reducing its further spread,” he said.
According to Prof Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge, preliminary data from his team suggests the two key spike mutations seen in B.1.617 means antibodies generated by one dose of the Pfizer vaccine have a four to sixfold lower ability to neutralise the variant compared with the pre-existing form of the virus, even when the mutations appeared together. This is lower that the 10-fold reduction produced by the E484K mutation seen in certain other variants, such as that first detected in South Africa.
The team further added that B.1.617 may be more transmissible than the pre-existing form of the virus.
According to data from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, 823 sequences of the India variants have been detected up to 28 April, including 260 of B.1.617 and 552 of B.1.617.2. This exceeds the 744 sequences of the variant first detected in South Africa, which has been designated a “variant of concern”.
It is not clear whether the sequences in this dataset are primarily from travellers entering the country. But experts said data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Covid–19 genomic surveillance paints a very worrying picture.
This dataset includes genomes sequenced for general surveillance but not from surge testing or travel-related testing, and suggests 10% of sequenced Covid cases in London now relate to B.1.617 or its close relatives.
Prof Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operational research unit at University College London, said the data was consistent with the most recent PHE variant report suggesting around 25% of cases of the India variants might be community cases. She added that the rapid rise in cases meant surge testing was more suitable than enhanced testing and tracing.
“They absolutely need to be surge testing for it because it does seem to be spreading fast in the community,” she said.