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Indian COVID variant still under investigation in UK, not yet of concern: Boris Johnson

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London, Apr 20: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Tuesday forced to defend what has been widely dubbed a delayed cancellation of his visit to India next week, which has been linked with the addition of India to the travel ban "red list".

Boris Johnson

Addressing a briefing at 10 Downing Street in London, he said the decision to add India to the red list was taken independently by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) on a precautionary basis because the so-called Indian variant of COVID-19 is yet to be classified as a variant of concern.

He reiterated that the reason the 103 cases of the variant had been detected quickly in the UK was the result of already fairly stringent measures in place for all international travellers entering the country.

"The Indian variant is still just a variant under investigation, not a variant of concern," he said, adding that experts are currently looking carefully to see if there is any sign the variant B.1.617 can "escape the effect of vaccines".

The central theme of his briefing was the launch of a new Antivirals Taskforce, charged with finding the most effective and speedy treatments for COVID-19 as he said the UK must learn to live with the disease when it emerges completely from lockdown by June-end.

"I see nothing in the data now that makes me think we are going to have to deviate in any way from the roadmap, cautious but irreversible that we have set out," said Johnson.

"But the majority of scientific opinion in this country is still firmly of the view that there will be another wave of COVID at some stage this year and so we must - as far as possible - learn to live with this disease, as we live with other diseases," he said.

The new Taskforce will search for the most "promising novel antiviral medicines" that can be taken at home and support their development through clinical trials to ensure they can be rapidly rolled out to patients as early as the autumn months of September-October. The Taskforce will also look at opportunities to onshore the manufacture of antiviral treatments.

"The success of our vaccination programme has demonstrated what the UK can achieve when we bring together our brightest minds. Our new Antivirals Taskforce will seek to develop innovative treatments you can take at home to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.

These could provide another vital defence against any future increase in infections and save more lives," added Johnson.

The aim is to have at least two effective treatments this year, either in a tablet or capsule form, that the public can take at home following a positive COVID-19 test or exposure to someone with the virus.

This has been described as another vital tool to combat any future increase in infections and limit the impact of new variants - especially over the annual flu season later this year.

"Modelled on the success of the vaccines and therapeutics taskforces, which have played a crucial part in our response to the pandemic, we are now bringing together a new team that will supercharge the search for antiviral treatments and roll them out as soon as the autumn," said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The antivirals could be used alone or in combination with one another in order to increase effectiveness and reduce the risk of further mutations. The new task force will sit alongside the government's existing Therapeutics Taskforce, which will continue its work to identify and supply treatments found to be effective in clinical trials, for all stages of a patient's exposure and response to COVID-19.

"Antivirals in tablet form are another key tool for the response. They could help protect those not protected by or ineligible for vaccines. They could also be another layer of defence in the face of new variants of concern," said Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

The Department of Health and Social Care said the UK has proven itself to be a world leader in identifying and rolling out effective treatments for COVID-19 - including the world's first treatment dexamethasone, which has since saved 22,000 lives in the UK so far and an estimated million worldwide.

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