UK to push surge testing after finding SA coronavirus variant
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London – Britain will step up mass testing in a number of areas across the country, including London, after it found an increasing number of novel coronavirus cases linked to the South African variant.
The health ministry said it urged every person over the age of 16 in parts of London, the central, eastern, south-east and north-west England to get a test this week regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.
It said Public Health England had identified 105 cases of the Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa since December 22. All cases and contacts have been reached.
Eleven people in different regions of England have tested positive for the South African coronavirus variant without having any links to people who have travelled.
Britain, with the fifth-highest Covid-19 death toll in the world, has moved to tighten its borders out of concern that new variants of the virus will undermine its vaccination drive.
To contain the new outbreaks, residents in eight areas of the country will now be tested whether or not they are showing any symptoms, a process known as "surge testing".
There are about 10 000 people in each area. Three are in London, two in the south-east, one in central England, one in the east and another in the north-west.
The government said on Monday the 11 cases were self-isolating and contact tracing would help to halt the spread.
Positive tests in the areas will be sequenced to identify any further spread of the South African variant, the government statement said.
All viruses mutate and scientists have identified several variants of the coronavirus found to be more transmissible than the original strain. Their emergence has raised questions over whether vaccines will prove as effective in containing them.
Britain said on January 24 it had detected 77 cases of the South African variant and nine cases of the Brazilian variant, but said all were linked to travel.
Scientists have said the South African variant appears to be more transmissible, but there is no evidence it causes more severe disease. But several laboratory studies have found that it reduces vaccine and antibody therapy efficacy.
Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said there was emerging evidence to suggest the variant was less susceptible to immunity induced by the current crop of vaccines.
"The discovery of a handful of cases with no links to travel to Africa indicates that it might be more widespread in the community than previously thought," he said.
"This spread, even if small in scale, needs to be brought under control quickly, so Public Health England's house-to-house checks, and intensive testing are the right thing to do."
Britain is battling a new wave of Covid-19 turbo-charged by the emergence in September of a more transmittable variant found in the south-east of England. The country's official death toll passed 100 000 last week.
Britain is however making rapid progress in its vaccination programme, with nearly 9 million people receiving the first shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot.