25 Covid-19 variants being monitored in UK, top health official says

16 June 2021, 15:31 | Updated: 16 June 2021, 15:42

Dr Susan Hopkins told MPs there are 25 Covid variants "under monitoring" in the UK
Dr Susan Hopkins told MPs there are 25 Covid variants "under monitoring" in the UK. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

There are 25 Covid-19 variants "under monitoring" in the UK, a top Public Health England (PHE) official has told MPs.

Dr Susan Hopkins, the body's strategic response director for coronavirus, warned that eight of the variants have been placed "under investigation" by the body to monitor how transmissible each one is, how ill infected people are becoming and the impact of vaccines.

"We're living in a world of variants now, so everything we see is a variation of the original," she told MPs on the Science and Technology Committee.

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"Actually, every (variant) we see that's going to live and not become extinct very rapidly is either going to have a transmissibility advantage or an immune-evading advantage.

"And so the challenge always is trying to understand which one of these is going to do something as it emerges."

Dr Hopkins told MPs that officials are "concerned" about mutations in each variant becoming a potentially serious issue.

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She continued: "All of them have mutations that we're concerned about, but mutations alone is not enough to predict whether it's really going to impact on our journey through vaccines and impact on the public health risk of hospitalisation.

"That component takes time, in being able to deliver that science accurately and allow us to develop accurate risk assessments."

Dr Hopkins also said that if lockdown restrictions were to be fully removed, the R number could become "greater than five and maybe up to seven" due to the Delta variant.

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Research into the transmissibility of the 'variant of concern' is ongoing but most recent estimates place it at around 65% more infectious than Alpha - the variant first identified in Kent.

"The growth rates suggest that it's increased by 40 to 80%, and that's using modelling techniques to estimate that," Dr Hopkins said.

"We've also looked at in-household transmission studies - so that gives us an assessment of when a case occurs of a house, how many other cases happen in that household, and compare that to cases of the Alpha variant."

Oxford Vaccine Group boss Sir Andrew Pollard told MPs the public will have to learn to live with variants
Oxford Vaccine Group boss Sir Andrew Pollard told MPs the public will have to learn to live with variants. Picture: PA Images

Several experts from PHE also appeared in front of the committee, including Oxford Vaccine Group boss Sir Andrew Pollard, who said the UK's "public health crisis is over" if Covid vaccines continue to offer high protection against hospital admission.

"But in the end," he told MPs, "we're going to have to come back to focusing on the really important public health issue, which is the hospitalisation and the death."

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"And if those are disconnected - if transmission is disconnected by vaccine immunity from the severe disease to a large extent - then we'll need to monitor new variants, perhaps if we need to find new vaccines and so on, but we are going to have to live with it being in in our communities and transmitting."

He continued: "That's the key bit that we have to look at with future variants: if that very high protection against hospitalisation continues, despite spread in the community, then the public health crisis is over."