In focus

How much of a threat is the Indian variant?


The news of vaccines sparked joy and relief in the UK, as in many countries, as hopes grew about an end to the pandemic.

However, the growth in variants globally has recently dampened spirits.

Here in the UK, just as lockdown restrictions started to ease, the news of a new “double mutant” variant of the coronavirus, labelled B.1.617.2 from India, has caused concern. The effect of this new variant is clear to see from the devastating scenes in India.

Mark Ainsworth, who leads Schroders' coronavirus research team and Data Insights Unit, answered some of our questions about it.

Does the double mutation make it more dangerous?

Not necessarily. “Double mutant” sounds scary, but viruses mutate all of the time. The new variant is called this because it shares two mutations that have been proven in other strains to produce partial immune-escape. This means it escapes natural immunity in the body, either brought about from being vaccinated or a previous infection.

Are vaccines effective against the variant B.1.617.2 (the “Indian variant”)?

The good news is that it looks like vaccines do work against B.1.617.2. There is evidence – for example - from a case where there was a coronavirus outbreak of the new variant in a London care home, where all of the residents had been vaccinated and nobody died. This indicates that vaccines work against severe illness even if they don’t entire stop transmission from person to person. Likewise, the case growth happening in Bolton – a key UK hotspot for this variant – is concentrated in younger age groups that haven’t yet been vaccinated.

What does this all mean for the UK?

We think that even in the face of immune-escape variants, vaccines are likely to be effective at reducing severe outcomes, even if they don’t prevent infection and transmission to others. Given that the majority of the very vulnerable in the UK have received at least one vaccination, we think it is unlikely that hospitals will be overwhelmed. It’s more likely that the UK will need to pause or even reverse some of the recent relaxation of the rules in order to keep this new strain under control.

What do you think that might look like?

We can clearly see that variant B.1.617.2 is spreading more in the younger part of the population. This makes sense as children have not yet been vaccinated in the UK. It means that school closures may be a lever that the government can pull in order to slow the spread. An obvious area of concern is indoor hospitality, which is known to be a high risk environment. However, the government may wish to keep that sector open as it is an important part of the economy. Speeding up vaccinations would also help.

What about other countries, will they have to reverse lockdown relaxations?

It is highly likely that variant B.1.617.2 will make its way around the world as the variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil did. Japan has already announced new restrictions and genome sequencing there has found that between 20-30% of all new coronavirus cases are the new Indian variant. It also makes foreign travel for holidays less likely globally as governments seek to stop this variant and others from landing on their shores.

What should we be watching out for?

We’re keeping an eye on lab research from the vaccine companies. They’ll look at the extent of immune escape as measured by “neutralising titre” – a way of measuring how many antibodies are needed to neutralise an invading virus.

The South African variant has a mutation that means it takes eight times as many antibodies to neutralise the virus as the original variant. This was a quite small reduction in real world immunity as your body can make lots of antibodies. If we see the need for 100 times more antibodies to neutralise the virus we would be concerned, as that would be a dramatic increase. So far it looks like vaccine antibodies work better against the Indian variant than the South African one.