London: The UK variant of the novel coronavirus spread rapidly in care homes in England in a span of two weeks between November and December last year, reflecting its spread across the country, according to a new study which calls for advanced surveillance systems to monitor the evolving virus.
The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that the proportion of infections among care home staff and residents caused by the new variant rose from 12 per cent in the week beginning 23 November to 60 per cent of positive cases just two weeks later, in the week beginning 7 December.
In the south east of England, where the variant was most dominant, the scientists from University College London (UCL) in the UK said this fraction rose from 55 to 80 per cent over the same period.
In London, where the variant spread fastest, they said the increase was from 20 to 66 per cent.
Based on the analysis of 4,442 positive samples from care home staff and residents in England, the researchers believe the UK variant, also known as B.1.1.7, was present in care homes from early on.
“Our findings suggest the UK variant spread just as quickly in care homes as it did in the general population. This shows the importance of public health measures to reduce transmission in the country as a whole,” said study senior author Laura Shallcross from UCL.
According to the researchers, most of the samples were from people aged under 65, as staff are tested much more frequently than residents.
However, they said the proportion of infections caused by the new variant rose from 14 per cent in the week beginning 23 November to 76 per cent in the week beginning 7 December among samples from those aged over 65.
“Our results are consistent with national trends, suggesting that the UK variant was present in care homes from early on, although our sample did not fully represent all care homes in England,” said study lead author Maria Krutikov from UCL.
“To see how viruses like Covid-19 are changing and to respond quickly and appropriately, it is really important we have an advanced surveillance system, with gene sequencing that can identify new variants as early as possible,” Krutikov said.