London, May 22: Two doses from either the Oxford/AstraZeneca or the Pfizer vaccine are over 80 per cent effective in preventing infection from the B1.617.2 variant of COVID-19, first discovered in India, a new UK government study has reportedly found.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca two-dose vaccine is also being produced by the Serum Institute of India as Covishield and being administered among the adult population in India to protect against the deadly virus.
The UK findings are said to be based on data from Public Health England (PHE) and have also revealed that the two doses provide 87 per cent protection from the B.117 variant, first discovered in Kent region of England and also considered highly transmissible.
According to 'The Telegraph' newspaper, the latest study's findings were presented to a meeting of the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) this week.
The latest PHE statistics released earlier this week show that case numbers of the B1.617.2 variant had risen by 2,111 over the past week to hit 3,424 cases across the country.
"I think it's clearly growing, which anyone can see from the numbers as they are reported week by week," Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genomics at the Sanger Institute, told the BBC.
"If I had to put a guess today it would be 20 or 30 per cent rather than 50 per cent (more infectious than the Kent variant). But there is still uncertainty, 50 per cent might be a reasonable worst case scenario," he said, in reference to the rate of transmissibility of the variant of concern (VOC) first detected in India.
Meanwhile, PHE officials are also closely monitoring a variant under investigation (VUI) in the Yorkshire region of England, which is showing high transmissibility.
It comes as the National Health Service (NHS) further expanded its vaccination programme and announced that it will open bookings for people aged 32 and 33, adding to the over-34s cohort, from Saturday.
NHS England said that the third expansion of eligibility in just one week comes as over four in 10 adults have now had both jabs.
"Only days after we extended the offer of a vaccine to 34 and 35 year olds, we are now rolling out the invite to 32 and 33 year olds - an incredible step forward in the biggest and most successful vaccination programme in NHS history," said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
"This is truly a testament to the heroic work of our amazing NHS and care staff, volunteers and local authorities across the country who have helped deliver over 50 million jabs at lightning speed across England, keeping us on track to offer a vaccine to everyone by July," he said.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has, meanwhile, said that it is ramping up testing and genome sequencing of sewage and waste water in the drive to track and trace all variants of COVID-19, including the B1.617.2 variant.
A new laboratory in Exeter, south-west England, opened last month dedicated to analysing wastewater, making it one of the biggest wastewater processing labs in the world. Increased genomic sequencing of sewage samples are expected to provide more clues to where variants of concern may be circulating undetected in communities. It can pick up evidence of variants from infected people and continue to monitor sewage after surge testing has ended in an area.
"Sequencing wastewater samples provides an additional detection system for variants of concern, enabling us to respond more effectively to outbreaks and better protect citizens," said Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries.
"This innovative programme supports the work of Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace to help us understand where the virus may be circulating undetected," she said.
Wastewater samples are taken from around 500 locations in England and sent to the laboratory at Exeter Science Park. Environment Agency scientists analyse the samples to quantify the amount of COVID-19 present.
"As infections fall and we head out of national restrictions, analysing wastewater to detect variants early on is important to help local authorities and NHS Test and Trace act quickly to stop variants from spreading in communities," said Programme Lead at the Joint Biosecurity Centre Dr Andrew Engeli.
The experts said that without the need to rely on individuals coming forward for swab tests, this kind of monitoring in a catchment area is able to pinpoint outbreaks to smaller areas and neighbourhoods. There are also pilots analysing the wastewater from specific institutions, such as within the food supply chain and prisons.