Some 80,000 people across England are being encouraged to come forward for ‘surge’ testing, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as part of efforts to contain the spread of the South African coronavirus variant.
A total of 116 cases in the UK have thus far been linked to the new variant – 11 of which were recently found to be community-based and not linked to people who had travelled to South Africa, suggesting the virus is now circulating among certain local populations.
These infections were detected in eight different English postcodes: in Hanwell, Tottenham and Mitcham, in London; Walsall in the West Midlands; Broxbourne, Hertfordshire; Maidstone, Kent; Woking, Surrey; and Southport, Merseyside. All but two areas involved single cases.
Experts believe the 11 new cases may have second or third generation links to travel but detailed investigations have not confirmed this.
In response to the emerging threat posed by the South African variant, a surge programme of PCR testing is to be introduced to the different postcode areas – home to roughly 10,000 people each – where local residents are being urged to take a test.
Local health teams will be carrying out door-to-door screening while mobile testing units are to be introduced to each area in a bid to pick up any further cases linked to the South African variant, known as 501Y.V2.
All samples are to be fast-tracked through England’s testing infrastructure and those that return a positive result will then be sequenced to identify which form of the coronavirus was responsible for the infection.
Although only 105 infections of 501Y.V2 have been identified to date, scientists are fearful that the new variant is beginning to spread across parts of the UK.
At this stage, the Covid-19 infection survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics has yet to pick up any cases linked to the variant, indicating it is not prevalent in the population.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “It is vital that we do all we can to stop transmission of this variant and I strongly urge everyone in these areas to get tested, whether you have symptoms or not.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at Public Health England (PHE), said: “As part of our proactive sequencing work, we know that the new variant of Covid-19 first detected in South Africa has been identified in a number of areas across England.
“A small proportion of these cases have no link to international travel suggesting that there are some cases in the community.
“In response to this, we are ramping up testing in targeted areas, so we can gather more information and effectively monitor any further community transmission.”
Some of the vaccines in use and currently going through approval have been shown to provide protection against 501Y.V2.
However, new studies have suggested that efficacy could be diminished, with trial data from Novavax indicating that their vaccine is less effective against 501Y.V2 than the original form of the virus.
It is not yet known whether the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being rolled out widely across the UK, will be effective against the variant.
Experts advising the government said they did not think the current vaccines would need to be tweaked to deal with any spread of the South African variant, which does not appear to cause more severe illness.
Local authorities in Surrey announced they would be implementing the surge testing programme after two people with no travel links to the country tested positive for the South African variant.
Door-to-door testing will be carried out for households in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking, Surrey, from Monday afternoon. Some 9,500 residents will be visited by health officials and requested to take a PCR test regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.
House checks are also expected to be extended to nearby Egham later in the week.
Ruth Hutchinson, director of public health for Surrey, said: “This is a precautionary measure – the more cases of the variant we find, the better chance we have at stopping it from spreading further.
“By playing your part and taking the test, you’ll be helping to keep your community and your loved ones safe.”
Dr Alison Barnett, regional director at PHE South East, urged “everyone offered a test to take it up to help us to monitor the virus in our communities and to help suppress and control the spread of this variant”
Ealing Council has similarly asked all those living and working in parts of Hanwell and East Ealing to take a Covid-19 test after one local resident also tested positive for 501Y.V2.
The council said the individual, who was tested at the end of December and has since made a full recovery from their infection, had no travel links to South Africa or been in contact with anyone who had recently returned from the country.
The Independent understands that Ealing Council was informed of a community-based infection linked to the South African variant last week, raising questions as to why local residents were only informed on Monday.
Labour MP David Lammy said that two cases of 501Y.V2 had been detected in the same household in Tottenham Hale.
The new infections come as prime minister Boris Johnson played down fears about vaccines being ineffective against the different coronavirus variants that have been detected to date.
During a visit to the Al Hikmah vaccination centre in Batley, West Yorkshire, the PM said: “We are confident that all the vaccines that we are using provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants.” He said the vaccines could be adapted to deal with new variants if necessary.
“The fact is we are going to be living with Covid for a while to come in one way or another,” he added. “I don’t think it will be as bad as the last 12 months – or anything like – of course, but it’s very, very important that our vaccines continue to develop and to adapt, and they will.”
Mr Johnson also said that infection rates in the UK were flattening and possibly beginning to fall. However, he warned that they remain at a high level, which means there can be no premature easing of restrictions for now.
“We’re starting to see some signs of flattening, and maybe even a falling off infection rates and hospitalisations. But don’t forget that they’re still at a very high level,” he added.
“The risk is that if you take your foot off the throat of the beast, if you allow things to get out of control and then you could, alas, see the disease spreading again, fast, before we got enough vaccines into people’s arms. That’s the risk.”