British health officials are looking at whether a newly identified Indian Covid-19 strain spreads more easily and evades vaccines.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said some cases had been found in the UK that were not linked to travel, and their origin is now being investigated. There is not yet enough data to classify it as a “variant of concern”, she added.
It is also too soon to decide if India should be put on the government’s travel “red list”.
Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, told the BBC, “We have seen a couple of cases of the Indian variant that haven’t arisen from travel but we’re still trying to look in great detail at where they might have acquired it from.
“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it is increased transmissibility, increased severity or vaccine evading, and we just don’t have that yet.”
But she said it was highly likely vaccines would still be effective in reducing deaths and hospitalisations.
Public Health England says 73 cases of the variant first identified in India have been found in England, and four in Scotland.
Epidemiologist Dr Mike Tildesley said work needs to be done urgently on finding out more about the variant.
He said, “I would always say when these new variants do emerge it is a concern and it’s really important that we get as much information as we can as quickly as possible.
“What’s concerning about the Indian variant is there appear to be two mutations which may make the vaccines less effective, and may make the virus more transmissible.
“The key thing here is ‘may’. We are still trying to gather evidence about this.”
So far, the prime minister’s trip to India is still to go ahead later this month but Boris Johnson has already scaled down the visit due to the rising number of cases – India has reported more than 150,000 Covid cases a day for the past three weeks.
The opposition shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused the government of not doing enough to keep variants out of the UK.
“Large numbers of cases of two deeply worrying variants, first discovered in South Africa and India, have been discovered in the UK,” he said.
Imperial College’s professor Danny Altmann said he was “terribly concerned” about the Indian strain. He warned that if variants of concern continue to spread unchecked they could “scupper our escape plan” from lockdown.
He said that the discovery of the variant should warrant India being placed on the UK’s “red list”, adding that he founding it “mystifying” and “slightly confounding” that Indian arrivals aren’t currently required to quarantine.