The UK outbreaks are still relatively small, but they serve as a cautionary tale for countries across the world that are returning to in-person education.
Scientists believe some of the new variants of the virus, including the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India, might be more contagious. That could mean social distancing measures that were strong enough to prevent the spread of the “original” virus may not be sufficient to stop transmission of these new strains.
As more schools reopen and new variants become dominant, outbreaks among younger students may become inevitable. Children are currently excluded from vaccination programs in most of the world. Even in the US, one of the few countries currently vaccinating younger people, children under the age of 12 are not eligible for the shot.
As of Tuesday, the B.1.617.2 variant had been found in 54 countries, according to the World Health Organization. While the variant remains uncommon in the US, its share of cases overall is growing, data from the CDC show.
On May 11, the WHO said the United Kingdom had reported the largest number of cases of the strain outside India, although it cautioned that the data may be incomplete, since it depends on countries’ abilities to conduct genetic sequencing.
Public Health England says the proportion of B.1.617.2 cases is growing fast.
Two towns in the north of the country, Bolton and Bradford, have seen major outbreaks of the strain in recent weeks.
Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist and senior lecturer at the University of Bath, said the number of cases among children between the ages of 10 and 14 has never been higher in Bolton.
Yates said the three worst-impacted age groups in the area are all children and teenagers, with most cases recorded in kids between the ages of 10 and 14, followed by those aged 15 to 19 and then those in the five to nine age bracket.
“The rates of infection seem highest among school-age children, where rises were seen earlier, and this now appears to be spreading to older age groups” in areas with B.1.617.2 outbreaks, said Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University in London.
Schools could be driving outbreaks
“The variant seems to have spread among children first, and became dominant among children, before gaining dominance in other age groups,” she said.
What experts don’t yet know is whether the high number of cases among children means they might be more susceptible to the new variants, or whether there is something about the school environment that makes the new variants…
Read More News: Here’s why schools are on alert over new coronavirus variants