The B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant that was first identified in India is now believed to be dominant in the United Kingdom, Public Health England (PHE) said Thursday, adding that early evidence suggests it could cause an increased risk of hospitalization in comparison to the strain that was first detected in England.
While PHE cautioned that more data is needed, its early findings showed that the B.1.617.2 or “Delta” variant was more likely to cause serious illness than the B.1.1.7 or “Alpha” variant, which had been dominant in the UK since it was first detected in southeast England last fall.
An analysis of 38,805 sequenced cases in England showed that the Delta variant carried 2.61 times the risk of hospitalization within 14 days compared with the Alpha variant, when variables such as age, sex, ethnicity and vaccination status were taken into consideration.
This week, at least 278 people with the Delta variant attended hospital emergency departments across the UK, resulting in 94 people being admitted to hospital overnight – an increase from the 201 people with the Delta variant who attended emergency departments last week, including 43 overnight admissions, PHE outlined. “The majority of these had not been vaccinated,” PHE highlighted.
The news raises serious questions about the plan to lift all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England on June 21. The decision to move ahead with that timeframe has not yet been finalized, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told CNN Thursday, adding that the government continues to monitor the data.
“We haven’t actually made the decision yet. We have said that the remaining restrictions will not be lifted before 21 June and we’ll set out over the next couple of weeks whether the data will justify that,” Hancock said.
“We take the approach in the UK that we set out when things will remain in place until, and then we follow the data as to whether it’s safe to lift those restrictions,” he added.
But ministers are also now moving to tighten the UK’s borders.
On Thursday, the government removed Portugal from its “green list” of countries (where travel is permitted without quarantining), and added seven more countries to the “red list” (of places that should not be visited) in an attempt to safeguard its reopening plan. The move has sent shock waves through Europe’s travel industry, just as it was beginning to find its feet following months of lockdown restrictions.
Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira, was added to the UK’s “amber” list, requiring travelers to quarantine for 10 days and take two Covid-19 tests upon return to the UK.
Grant Shapps, the UK’s transport secretary, said the decision was based on rising positivity rates in Portugal and a growing concern that returning travelers could bring in more coronavirus variants, specifically mutations to the fast-spreading Delta variant.
“We just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine-defeating mutation, and we don’t want to take the risk as we come up to 21 June and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock,” Shapps said Thursday in an interview with the BBC.
Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has criticized the UK’s decision, warning that a balance needed to be found in order to avoid “health fundamentalism” and stressed the need to “move forward.”
Coronavirus cases in England are continuing to climb, with the number of people testing positive hitting the highest level in six weeks on Thursday. A total of 17,162 people tested positive for the coronavirus in England in the week up to May 26, a 22% increase compared to last week, according to the UK’s National Health Service Test and Trace program.
Speaking to CNN, Hancock said that while the UK will remain cautious, the uptick in cases will not necessarily lead to a higher mortality rate due to vaccination levels.
“The big change, of course, is the vaccine … the number of cases doesn’t automatically lead to hospitalizations and sadly deaths – as it automatically did in the past – because we’ve broken that link, but it’s not completely broken so we’re watching this very, very carefully,” he said.
Half of all adults in the UK are now fully vaccinated, UK vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi announced in a tweet on Thursday, describing it as an “important milestone.”
Vaccination still appears to be making an impact on the spread of the virus.
“One shining light however is that vaccination still appears to be making an impact on spread,” Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist with PHE, said on Twitter. According to PHE, 73% of Delta cases are in unvaccinated people, compared to only 3.7% in people who have received both doses.
Similarly, only 5% (seven infections) of the confirmed Delta cases that were admitted to hospital overnight – and two deaths – were people who had received both doses.
The PHE data also reveals the spread of variants within schools in England. In the first week of June, there had been 140 outbreaks of the Delta variant within educational settings. Delta cases also made up for about half of known school outbreaks in the most recent week.
Reacting to the PHE report on Twitter, Christina Pagel, director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, said she was astonished at the “rosy” interpretation of the PHE data.
“I get the desire to be optimistic (honestly) but minimising delays action and ultimately makes things worse. Exponential growth is a red flag,” Pagel said.
“We *now* have evidence that delta is (a lot) more transmissible, partially vax resistant & more severe. It’s now 80% of our cases. The genie is out of the bottle.”
CNN’s Alicia Lloyd and Duarte Mendoca in London and Emmet Lyons in Dublin contributed to this report.