UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced the “vital but difficult” decision to add India to the UK travel “red list”, following the surge in cases of COVID-19 and detection of a new variant first identified in the country.
The decision has, however, been criticised as being taken too late. “These decisions are almost inevitably taken a bit too late in truth, but what’s absolutely clear is that this variant is more transmissible in India,” Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, told BBC Breakfast. “You can see that it’s becoming the dominant variant and the other concern about it is that it has a second change in the spike protein which may mean that it’s able to be a bit more effective at escaping an immune response, either a natural one or vaccine-induced one, so there’s good reasons for wanting to keep it out of the country if at all possible.
“What we need to do is get the population vaccinated and also get booster vaccines prepared that will be able to deal with these new variants – so buying time… against these new variants is really important.”
The opinion that the decision was taken far too late is likely to be a common one due to announcements that the double-mutant strain has already been discovered within the UK. 182 cases of the India variant have so far been found in the UK as of April 16th according to figures from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK).
The UK has, however, made clear progress in vaccinating the population, with more than 32 million individuals having received the first dose — equating to close to half the population. India, numerically, has rolled out far more vaccination doses. The gargantuan campaign is reported to have covered more than 100 million people — a figure larger than the population of most countries. However, in the context of India, this is still fewer than ten percent of the population, far short of a figure needed to achieve herd immunity.
The surge in cases continues unabated in India, with 256,947 cases recorded on April 19th. Fears that the double-variant could expose even those who have already been infected with the baseline variant of COVID-19 have many worried that this second wave in India could be far more devastating than the first. With both daily new cases and daily deaths consistently higher than the first wave, these fears may be proven true.