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.
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.