Covid 19 coronavirius: Indian variant now most imported form of virus

The Indian variant is now the most imported form of coronavirus, a new analysis by Public Health England (PHE) has found, amid fears it contains mutations which could bypass immunity and make it more transmissible.

The variant has now overtaken the UK variant in travellers, even though the Kent mutated virus has spread rapidly round the world, meaning cases are regularly being imported back to Britain.

A report from PHE found just three cases of the Indian variant had no link to travel, 94 out of 119 cases were imported, and 22 were still under investigation.

There are fears more cases will be found in the coming days after a scramble to return to Britain from India before the country was red-listed on Friday.

Anyone returning must now isolate in a government-approved quarantine facility, where previously they were trusted to stay at home and take PCR tests.

It was reported at least eight private jets landed in Britain from India, as the super-rich attempted to get ahead of the new travel ban. One jet landed at Luton airport from Mumbai just 44 minutes before the new restrictions came into effect, according to The Times.

It is unknown whether the variant is responsible for the huge surge in India, which recorded 332,730 cases on Friday, the highest one-day total for anywhere in the world since the pandemic began.

The variant – also known as B.1.617 – was first noted internationally in October and first identified in the UK on Feb 22. It has 13 mutations, including two in the virus’ spike protein known as E494Q and L452R.

A new biological analysis by PHE shows it carries several changes to the spike protein which are associated with being able to escape immunity in other variants.

The spike protein acts as a grappling arm to attach to cells, and the vaccines were created based on the original “wild-type” virus of the first wave. Significant changes can mean immunity from either vaccines or a previous infection is no longer able to spot the virus.

As well as changes which could make the virus less visible to the immune system, it is also thought to carry mutations that make it more transmissible.

The new cases have largely been found in London, the North West and the East of England.

There have been no deaths from the variant recorded so far.

A senior government scientist said it looked as if the Indian variant was more transmissible but it was unclear whether it would evade vaccines or prior immunity.

“Some of the mutations are in the same positions we’ve seen in the South Africa and Brazilian variants and one position in the California variant but that didn’t really take off as fast as people thought it would,” the source said.

“I think we don’t really know yet the real impact of the Indian variant. So far, almost everything has been not as transmissible as the UK variant found in Kent and that’s why that one dominates now, pretty much across most parts of the world, certainly very dominant in Europe and the US.”

However, the adviser warned that closing the borders was unlikely to happen.

“Your border controls need to be most rigorous where you’ve got a high prevalence in a country, coming to a low prevalence country, that’s where you want to protect borders most.

“All you can do is delay, you won’t stop [variants entering] and even with draconian border measures you don’t really stop unless you’ve got the complete lockdown.”

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