London, May 13 (PTI) The number of people infected with the coronavirus in England fell by almost half over the past month marking the lowest level of COVID-19 cases since last year, according to new statistics released in London on Thursday as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said "cautious steps" were being taken on the virus variant first identified in India.

The Imperial College London-led Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT-1) study comes as it emerged that the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is holding a review meeting on Thursday to discuss the Variant of Concern (VOC) first identified in India.

During a primary school visit in north-east England on Thursday, Johnson admitted the VOC named B.1.617.2 "has been spreading" and the UK wants to "grip it".

"We want to make sure that we take all the prudential, all the cautious steps now that we could take. So there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do," said Johnson.

On Wednesday, Johnson told Parliament that the VOC detected in India was of “increasing concern” as it may be "considerably more transmissible" than the dominant variant in the UK first detected in the county of Kent last year.

The variant B.1.617.2 is one of three subtypes of the mutation first detected in India and was designated as a VOC by Public Health England (PHE), with over 800 cases being traced in parts of the country.

"The scientists on SAGE will make their assessments, they will report back to (the) government and we will make decisions based on the data and the evidence that they provide,” said James Cleverly, UK Foreign Office Minister.

Asked if the government was considering so-called surge vaccinations alongside surge testing in areas with spikes of new variants, Downing Street has said health officials would not "rule anything out".

It is feared that the June 21 date set in the UK government's complete lockdown easing roadmap may be impacted from the SAGE analysis.

The European Medicines Agency has said that it is "pretty confident" that vaccines currently in use are effective against the variant B.1.617.2, which remains the view of scientists in the UK at this stage.

Meanwhile, the REACT-1 study, based on over 127,000 home swab tests taken between April 15 and May 3, shows that 0.1 per cent of the population is currently infected, or one in 1,000.

This compares with the study's previous testing round when 0.2 per cent or one in 500 had the coronavirus as of March 30.

The researchers report that since January, the link between the rate of infections, hospitalisations and deaths has become decoupled, with infections associated with fewer hospitalisations and deaths which likely reflects the impact of the vaccination programme.

“It is very encouraging that infections have continued to fall while rules have been relaxed in England, and it's likely that the vaccine rollout has played a key part in helping keep the virus at bay,” said Professor Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme from Imperial's School of Public Health.

"We need to continue to monitor trends in the coming weeks as restrictions are eased further, and in the meantime, we must continue to stick to the rules to help keep infections down and enable the vaccination programme to continue to protect people,” he said.

The study also analysed the genetic code of a small number of positive swab samples to look for variants and while the majority were found to be the so-called Kent variant, the VOC from India was also found in London based on analysis of samples taken for routine testing.

Professor Steven Riley, Professor of Infectious Disease Dynamics at Imperial, said: “The fact that our study detected the Indian variant among a small number of samples could be cause for concern.

“At the moment it's unclear whether this variant is more transmissible than B.1.1.7 but this is a risk, so it will be important to closely monitor infections and hospitalisations in areas where this virus is present so that public health responses can be implemented if needed.”

The REACT-1 study, carried out by Imperial College London in partnership with Ipsos MORI is tracking current coronavirus infections in the community by testing more than 125,000 randomly-selected people each month over roughly a two-week period.

The study recruits new people each month to help ensure the sample represents the wider population and offers a high-resolution snapshot of the situation across a particular time period.

So far, the UK has recorded 4,457,742 cases of the coronavirus, along with 127,901 related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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