Thousands of cases of the more infectious variant of coronavirus have been detected across the UK, according to scientists, who said it had clearly spread beyond areas under the most severe tier 4 restrictions.
The latest genetic surveillance suggests the new variant spread rapidly from Kent and London in late September and has reached the south-west, the Midlands and the north of England, although London, the south-east and eastern England remain by far the most affected regions.
“It is certainly not the case that this is just completely geographically constrained in what is the current tier 4 area,” said Dr Jeffrey Barrett, a statistical geneticist working on Covid-19 at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute near Cambridge.
Prof Tom Connor, a consultant bioinformatician at Cardiff University, said genetic sequencing had picked up the new variant, named B117, in north and south Wales in keeping with its spread across the country. “The sequence data shows quite clearly there are cases all around the UK,” he said.
Geneticists monitoring the virus’s spread and evolution have collected more than 3,100 sequences of B117 from around the country, though some may be duplicates. More than 2,500 come from positive Covid tests in London, Kent, Essex and Norwich, with the rest scattered across the UK.
According to Prof Robert Dingwall, the new variant is more transmissible because those who contract it produce more of the infection in their nose and mouth, meaning they will breathe more of it into the air.
Dingwall, who is a committee member on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said: “My understanding of it is that you are producing more of the infection in the upper respiratory tract and the virus is reproducing faster so that there is more to go into the air, to pass from one person to another.
“It doesn’t travel further, but having produced more it also has properties that make it easier to take over cells in a person that it enters into.”
There are strong indications the new hyper-infective variant of Covid-19 has reached Cumbria, according to the county’s director of public health. Infections in the district of Eden, which is only 20 miles from the Scottish border, have “skyrocketed”, according to Colin Cox, the director of public health.
He said he suspected the new variant was involved, because of the “very, very high hit rate”. Eden, which includes the market town of Penrith, had experienced workplace outbreaks where 50% of staff had been infected, “despite having good Covid controls in place”, he said.
Cumbria is in tier 2, the second lowest level of restrictions. Some areas of the county, such as Copeland in the west, still have among the lowest infection rates in England.
Cox said it was not confirmed that the Eden outbreaks were definitively caused by the new variant but one particular biochemical marker had come up in the new outbreaks that was “at least highly suggestive of being the new variant”, he said.
“We’ve got a couple of outbreaks in workplaces with more than 100 people in them, in which almost half are getting infected. We’ve seen big outbreaks in schools,” Cox said. “Wherever we are seeing outbreaks happening we are seeing them affecting a large proportion of the people who might have been exposed.”
He said it was worrying “not because the new variant is any more dangerous, but because it spreads faster, so it’s more likely to get to more people. And so, yes, it’s a concern. But I think, given the increase in transmissibility that we see in this new variant, it’s likely to be everywhere pretty quickly. I don’t think there are many places which are going to hold out.”
Despite his concerns, Cox did not think Cumbria should be moved into a higher tier before Christmas.
“Our rates are very mixed at the moment. And Copeland has, if not the lowest then still one of the lowest rates in the country,” he said.
“Most places in Cumbria are comfortable in tier 2. And I guess the real question would be, what value there would be in putting it into tier 3 right now and then you get the Christmas Day relaxation, and then it feels as if we would be not that far away from another national intervention. Just swapping all the rules around so quickly, would make less sense, I think.”
Health officials in Lancashire said they believed the new variant was behind a sudden surge in the number of infections in the county, which has been under tier 3 coronavirus restrictions since October.
Angie Ridgwell, the chair of Lancashire’s resilience forum, urged people who had travelled to the region from a tier 4 area to stay at home and not mix with other households during the Christmas period.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire’s director of public health, said the county believed the variant was behind a “significant shift upwards” in the infection rate among all age groups, although this had not yet been confirmed by genomic analysis.
He said: “A signal of the presence of the new variant is a sudden shift in the increase in the number of new cases and we are starting to see that in many parts of Lancashire. It is happening across all the age groups.
“What we have seen is an increase since we have come out of national lockdown into tier 3. After a few days we’ve started seeing a shift – and in some districts a significant shift – upwards in many age groups.”