UK in bolstered vaccine drive to tackle ‘clusters’ of B1.617.2 variant

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London, May 21

The UK government says it has bolstered its COVID-19 vaccine drive as part of a series of enhanced measures to tackle “clusters” of the B1.617.2 variant of concern (VOC) first identified in India, as the latest data confirmed its numbers had risen by 2,111 over the past week to hit 3,424 cases across the country.

Public Health England (PHE) said in its latest weekly variant cases data released on Thursday that cases of the variant categorised as VOC-21APR-02 are still predominantly affecting the north-west of England – particularly Bolton – and London, but “we are seeing clusters of cases across the country”.

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“There is evidence that VOC-21APR-02 is growing rapidly and may be more transmissible than VOC-20DEC-01, the ‘Kent variant’ that is currently dominant in the UK. Experts at PHE are monitoring the situation closely,” PHE said.

Health authorities said that a targeted approach is being used throughout London to focus on the city’s many “small dispersed clusters”.

This includes whole-genome sequencing, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, settings-based testing, enhanced contact tracing, self-isolation support, and enhanced vaccine deployment to ensure that second doses for priority groups are brought forward and that maximum uptake is achieved for first doses.

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In Bolton, more than 33,000 test kits have been given out as part of the surge testing programme, not including tests taken by residents visiting Mobile Testing Units (MTU). Health officials said they visited more than 9,000 properties during door-to-door visits, giving out over 3,400 test kits.

“We are determined to do all we can to ensure this new variant doesn’t put our recovery at risk,” said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

“So we’ve acted fast, to guard the gains that we’ve made together. We are putting in place more testing – more testing sites – and on vaccinations, we are making more vaccinations available to everyone eligible. To everyone in these areas, please exercise caution, get a test, and as soon as you’re eligible, get the jab,” he said.

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In total, more than 180,000 additional PCR test kits have been deployed to affected areas and over 170 existing test sites in those areas have been switched to provide PCR test kits – this means tests can be sequenced faster so variant cases are found sooner, PHE said. 

Over 150 MTUs have been deployed to provide PCR test kits for those without symptoms in the most affected areas.

“While there is no evidence to show this variant has a greater impact on the severity of disease or evades the vaccine, the speed of growth is of note and the government is working quickly to ensure the appropriate action is being taken,” the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

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The government department said that targeted activity will take place across Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester and North Tyneside to continue to drive vaccine uptake amongst eligible cohorts to protect the most vulnerable.

This includes measures such as vaccine buses, additional pop-up sites, drive-through and roving delivery to workplaces, co-locating vaccination sites with surge testing and Surge Rapid Response Teams for the most affected areas. PTI

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