THE South African variant of Covid-19 could already have spread further than eight postcodes, experts have warned.
It was today revealed that eleven people have tested positive for the strain despite not travelling there.
Residents in areas such as Surrey have been urged to go and get a test regardless of whether they have Covid symptoms or not Credit: PA:Press Association
Door-to-door testing is now being carried out across eight UK postcodes in a bid to detect cases and avoid the virus spreading further.
Around 80,000 people over the age of 16 in eight postcodes will be urged to take a Covid-19 test – even if they don’t have symptoms.
It includes parts of Surrey, London, the West Midlands, East of England, South East and North West.
But experts this afternoon warned that cases of the virus might not just be confined to the places outlined by Public Health England (PHE).
Prof Rowland Kao, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science, University of Edinburgh said the identification of South African strains in the UK suggests the patients had been infected in this country.
This in part he said, is due to the fact that the cases hadn’t travelled to South Africa and had no links to other known cases.
He said that there is “evidence of local transmission”.
Prof Kao added: “As only 5 per cent of cases are tested to determine if they are the variant, there is a high probability that further local cases are in circulation – making it more difficult at the spread of the variant can be contained.
“Surge testing, i.e where all residents will be offered a PCR test via post will aim therefore to identify variant clusters and extent of spread, but is highly dependent on individuals taking up those tests, as it remains a voluntary activity.
“As there is some evidence that current vaccines may be at least somewhat less effective against this variant, slowing its spread via surge testing and maintaining travel restrictions to prevent it jumping to other areas of the UK (if it has not done so already) will be important to keep Covid-19 infections continuing downwards at its current trajectory.”
Health officials said mass testing would help to closely monitor any community spread of the new variant, and restrict further transmission.
Testing doesn’t currently detect whether someone has the South African strain but they will be sent to the lab to be sequenced to identify any more cases of the particular strand in the area.
One expert added that the spread of the South African variant could be vast.
Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology, University of Reading, said: “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.
“Detecting this is a success story for the UK’s coronavirus genome sequencing programme.
“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.
“Anyone testing positive for the coronavirus must isolate to stop the spread.”
The South African strain entered the UK in late December, when two people were found to have tested positive for the mutant bug.
Experts are concerned about the variant because it’s feared to be more contagious and potentially more deadly than the original.
A team of scientists in South Africa, who have been studying the variant since if first emerged towards the end of last year, found it to be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, British scientists have warned the mutation may also be more deadly.
Home testing kits are being boxed up and sent out to residents in eight areas across the UK Credit: PA:Press Association
Experts on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), who feed into the government advisory group SAGE, have been analysing the mutation.
They said last week that data showed “a hint of increased mortality”.
But they cautioned there has not been detailed research into deaths from the South African variant, as there has been with the Kent one, so they cannot be confident in the finding.
To work out if a new strain is truly more deadly, scientists have to do a “controlled” study, where they control for factors that may skew the results.