The mutated coronavirus variant first found in Bristol was today labelled a ‘variant of concern’ by UK scientists.
Public Health England said it has now found 21 cases of this version of the virus, with 14 in Bristol and the South West, four in Manchester and three ‘scattered’ across the UK.
It is a version of the Kent variant – the dominant strain of the virus in England – which has mutated further to develop a change first found on the South African strain which may make vaccines less effective.
Because of this mutation named E484K, which also raises the risk of people getting reinfected after they already had Covid-19, experts are desperate to stamp it out.
It becomes the third variant of concern found in Britain, alongside the now-dominant Kent variant and the South African one. A fourth – one of two strains from Brazil – is also listed by Public Health England but it has not yet been found in the UK.
Experts said they were worried about the Bristol variant’s combination of mutations because it would be ‘at least as transmissible’ as the fast-spreading Kent variant but also potentially able to dodge immunity from vaccines.
Although it is not likely to take over and become dominant now, there is a risk it could come through when the Kent strain has been suppressed by vaccinations.
The Department of Health announced today it had finished its surge testing – which is used to weed out these variants – in Woking, but started it in Lambeth, London.
There are now six variants of coronavirus being investigated by Public Health England, five of which have already been found in the UK
The Government has deployed surge testing to areas where the South African variant, or ones with similar mutations, have been found in the community. Professor Van-Tam reassured viewers that only a ‘small number’ of cases have been discovered
The spread of differing variants across Britain is causing a storm now because of the risk that one will render the long-awaited vaccines less effective.
Most concerning is the spread of the E484K mutation that appears to give the virus the ability to get past immunity developed against older versions of the virus.
This mutation initially appears randomly – and it appears to do so fairly often – but sometimes becomes a permanent feature of a variant because it gives it an advantage in that it can reinfect people who would be protected against other versions of the virus.
The fact that the variant cases have been discovered during lockdown, said PHE’s Dr Susan Hopkins, was a cause for immediate action because it presented an opportunity to control them while people are not mixing much.
‘It is reassuring [that] we aren’t seeing week-on-week increases in either of them and the data is staying flat,’ Dr Hopkins told a briefing today.
‘I think why we’re getting on top of these now is because the R is below one… when we release in March, April and May, things will be more challenging.’
WHAT ARE THE VARIANTS?
A variant is a version of a virus that has mutated in a way that makes it different to other types, but they are all still the same coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
The main concerning mutations that have led to new variants emerging in the UK are these:
Mutation N501Y: This changes the spike protein on the outside of the virus to make it bind better to human cells and therefore spread faster.
Mutation E484K: This changes the spike protein in a way that makes the virus able to dodge some of the immune cells and proteins developed in response to older versions of the virus or vaccines based on older variants.
These are the key variants being talked about by Public Health England:
Also known as B117. This carries the N501Y fast-spreading mutation and has been the main version of the virus in England since around Christmas.
South Africa variant
Also known as B1351. This has both N501Y and E484K, meaning it can spread fast and may get past the immune system. 170 cases have been confirmed in the UK.
Brazil variant 1
Known as P1, this has both N501Y and E484K, but is different to the South African variant in other ways which are not yet thought to be important. It has not yet been found in the UK but is a cause for concern because it is fast-spreading and may get past immunity.
Brazil variant 2
Known as P2, this has the E484K mutation. It has been found 24 times in the UK. Officials aren’t particularly worried about it because it is likely slower-spreading than the above.
This is a version of the Kent variant that has developed the E484K mutation. This means it is both fast and may get past immunity. Its key mutations are the same as those of South African and Brazil variant 1, but it is genetically different in other ways so has its own name. 21 cases have been found in the UK.
This is similar to Brazil variant 2. It does not have N501Y like the others, and is based on the version of the virus that was dominant before the Kent variant. But it has picked up the E484K mutation. It is likely slower to spread but may get past the immune system. 55 cases have been found in the UK. Professor Nick Loman, a PHE adviser, said it hasn’t been seen in ‘a long time’.
While none of the variants of concern look to be spreading fast out of the areas where they were first discovered, this could change when rules are eased.
Professor Nick Loman, a genomics expert at the University of Birmingham, member of COG-UK and PHE adviser, added: ‘What applies in a lockdown is not necessarily going to be true when we relax measures.
‘The fact that the South African variant is not doing well now doesn’t mean it won’t [when lockdown ends].’
Coronavirus swab testing has been scaled up in various parts of England where the worrying variants of the virus have been found.
Neighbourhoods are being visited by officials bearing test kits and walk-through centres have been set up for people with no symptoms in most regions.
The testing is happening in Walsall and Worcestershire in the Midlands, Broxbourne in East Anglia, Maidstone in Kent, Southport and Liverpool in the North West, and in Bristol in the South West.
In London the ‘surge testing’ is being done in Hanwell, Tottenham, Mitcham and Lambeth as of today.
Announcing the expansion of testing to Lambeth, where officials have found cases of the original South African variant, the Department of Health said the postcodes SE27 0, SE27 9 and SW16 2 would be affected.
Although ministers and health officials believe they can get on top of the variant cases with this surge testing and more rigorous contact tracing during lockdown, scientists have warned that the cases they’re finding are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
COG-UK only examines around 15 per cent of positive tests to find out which variant they were caused by.
This suggests that the number of cases of each variant that they find could be multiplied by around seven to get to a more accurate number – so there may already have been 1,200 cases of the South African variant from the 170 detected.
Dr Hopkins said it was still a ‘relatively small number’ and added: ‘If R is below one and transmission is reducing we wouldn’t expect those cases to be increasing…
‘When we have another variant that’s out-competing it more than 1,000-fold it’s still a minor variant.’
But she did not admit that the purpose of the surge testing was to get rid of the variant completely, which may be impossible by now.
Instead she said the plan was to ‘understand if there is further spread in the country… understand how we can control the spread… and, where possible, reduce the spread’.
Worries about the South African variant came to a head last weekend when the Financial Times reported that a study in that country had found Oxford and AstraZeneca’s vaccine failed to prevent it causing Covid-19 in young people.
But researchers and politicians have launched a PR offensive against the damning claims, insisting the jab will still stop people being admitted to hospital or dying.
Professor Andrew Pollard, a doctor and the leader of Oxford’s trials, said today: ‘The most likely thing is that new versions of this virus will continue to be made to allow it to better transmit in the population. The question is does that matter?
‘Are vaccines still going to be good enough to stop people going into hospital or dying? Because actually, if people have just got the sniffles I think our job is done.’
He insisted that trials in South Africa for Oxford’s vaccine – and for others as well – showed that hospitalisations were still preventable in the presence of the variant.
Professor Pollard told a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus: ‘All of the vaccines in the trials are in those regions that we’re talking about, where new variants are emerging, and we are not seeing a sudden shift so that lots of people who were vaccinated are ending up in hospital.
‘They’re still being protected from hospitalisation.
‘We need more data to be absolutely secure on this and we will be gathering that in all these different countries.
‘But if that’s the case: we might need boosters, we might need tweaks every year but, actually, we might not. We might be generating enough immunity from the current generation of vaccines to stop severe disease…
‘In the meantime we can’t afford to be complacent so we have to have new vaccines ready in case we need them.’
WHERE IS DOOR-TO-DOOR TESTING BEING OFFERED?
W7: Hanwell (SA variant)
N17: Tottenham (SA variant)
CR4: Mitcham (SA variant)
SE27 0, SE27 9 and SW16 2: Lambeth (SA variant)
WS2: Walsall (SA variant)
WR3: Worcestershire (SA variant)
WR9: Worcestershire (SA variant)
East of England
EN10: Broxbourne (SA variant)
ME15: Maidstone (SA variant)
PR9: Southport (SA variant)
Liverpool (Original variant with E484K mutation)
M14 4, M14 7, M15 5, M15 6, M16 7, M16 8: Manchester (Kent variant with E484K mutation)
VARIOUS POSTCODES: Bristol (Kent variant with E484K mutation)