ANOTHER new Covid variant has been detected in the UK with 38 confirmed cases identified, health bosses said today.
The new strain dubbed B.1.525 has been found in Bristol and the South West, with two cases in Wales, Public Health England revealed.
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On top of the 38 confirmed cases, another four are "probable".
Like strains found in South Africa and Brazil, B.1.525 carries a mutation that can make Covid jabs less effective.
It has been categorised as a "variant under investigation" following a risk assessment.
Surge testing will not be carried out to find more cases, PHE said, because it is not seen as a "variant of concern".
A University of Edinburgh report said more than 100 cases have been identified globally in total.
But this is likely an underestimate because only a proportion of Covid swabs go through laboratory testing – used to detect cases of new variants.
The variant appears to be most prevalent in Nigeria at this stage.
The report said 24 per cent of swab samples analysed genetically in Nigeria were caused by this variant (12 of 51).
Canadian health officials first detected the variant last week and said it was related to travel to Nigeria, according to CTV News.
The report said the variant was first discovered in the UK in mid-December.
But it doesn't mean it evolved here – the UK does at least half the world's genetic sequencing of the virus, therefore may pick up new variants ahead of other countries.
Since December only 0.6 per cent of several thousands of cases in the UK have been blamed on this variant.
PHE said although a couple of cases were discovered in December, it did not cause an outbreak large enough to warrant an announcement until February.
It comes as:
- A leading scientist and member of Sage has said plans to ease the UK's lockdown measures should be brought forward because vaccinations are going so well.
- Covid jabs are poised to double to a million a day to get all over-50s vaccinated by the end of April.
- Supermarket workers, teachers and police officers could be prioritised for the Covid vaccine in the next phase, the vaccines minister revealed.
- Government officials look at scrapping the "stay at home" message.
There are several new variants of Covid which have spread in the UK since the end of 2020.
The three of most concern emerged in Kent (B1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351) and Brazil (P.2).
The latest addition, named B.1.525, has similarities to the Kent strain, but with several additional mutations, according to the University of Edinburgh.
One of these is the E484K mutation, also found in the South African and Brazilian variants, and scientists believe it could make vaccines less effective.
It causes a change on the spike protein – found on the outside of the virus – that plays an important role in helping the virus to enter cells as well as the immune system's response to it.
Early studies have shown the E484K mutation is better able to hide from antibodies that kill the virus.
Vaccine companies have confirmed their jab works less efficiently – but still to some degree – on this mutation.
The Kent strain has been shown to be up to 70 per cent more infectious, and top scientists confirmed it was deadlier in papers last week.
The new B.1.525 has been detected in 10 countries including Denmark (35 cases), the US (10), France (five), Spain (one) and Australia (two).
It is one of the seven new variants reported in the US, leading to Dr Anthony Fauci to plead with Americans not to "let your guard down."
What are the different Covid variants in the UK?
SINCE the Covid pandemic erupted last year, there have been various different variants of the SARS-Cov-2 virus detected across the world.
As the virus replicates inside human cells it occasionally makes small copying errors or mutations.
If enough distinct mutations are made and passed on, the result can be new variants.
While scientists say they are normal and were expected, some are more concerning than others. That's because some mutations – like the E484K mutation – can make vaccines less effective. The mutation affects the spike protein, the bit of the virus that allows it to bind to human cells and infect them.
Here we outline the different Covid variants that have so far been detected in the UK:
- The original Covid virus – this is the variant that was widely circulating in 2020
- The Kent variant (B.1.1.7) – this became the dominant version of the virus just before Christmas
- The South African variant (B.1.351) – this is a variant that cropped up in South Africa and has now been traced in the UK – both in people who have and haven't travelled to the country. It features the E484K mutation which helps the virus evade vaccines
- The Bristol variant (VOC 202102/02) – this developed from the Kent strain, and now (unlike the dominant Kent strain) features the E484K mutation, helping it escape vaccines too
- The Liverpool variant – this developed from the original Covid virus, and (unlike the original) features the E484K mutation.
- The B.1.525 variant – first detected in Nigeria it has emerged in 10 countries including the UK, and features the E484K mutation
The number of cases of a new variant that are discovered in a country, and how early,, is largely down to how much genomic sequencing it does.
The UK sampled more than 70,600 swabs and found 33 cases of this variant, while Nigeria found 12 cases in 51 swabs.
The Edinburgh researchers did not describe if the new variant caused different symptoms, more severe disease or was more infectious.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England (PHE), said: “There is currently no evidence that this set of mutations causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility.
"PHE is monitoring data about emerging variants very closely and where necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, such as extra testing and enhanced contact tracing.
“The best way to stop the spread of the virus is to follow the public health advice – wash your hands, wear a face covering and keep your distance from others. While in lockdown, it is important that people stay at home where possible.”
Dr Emilia Skirmuntt, an evolutionary virologist at University of Oxford, told The Sun: "The new variant was first found in Nigeria, but also other places across the world.
"We know that it contains mutations that we've seen before in other variants, for example, a mutation which helps the virus to evade immunity.
"There are also some other mutations we don’t know what they are doing – if they are doing anything – so that's completely new.
"Right now we know this variant exists, it has some mutations which might change the characteristics of this variant. But how it behaves, it will take a few weeks to know that."
Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, the presence of the E484K mutation was known in the South Africa variant to weaken vaccine efficacy.
He told The Guardian: “We don’t yet know how well this [new] variant will spread, but if it is successful it can be presumed that immunity from any vaccine or previous infection will be blunted.
“I think that until we know more about these variants, any variants which carry E484K should be subject to surge testing as it seems to confer resistance to immunity, however that is generated."
Already the original coronavirus strain, which cropped up in Wuhan, and the Kent strain have evolved to develop the E484K mutation over time.
Cases of the Kent version have been detected 22 times, mostly in Bristol, and the original version 55 times in Liverpool and surrounding areas.
These new mutations have led to surge testing in several locations in England to weed out as many cases as possible and prevent further spread.
Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, agreed surge testing for the new variant was warranted.
She noted the E484K mutation had a change “that likely helps it escape from our antibodies”.
Scientists say it is quite common for viruses to mutate, and more often than not, these mutations are harmless.
But sometimes “mutations of concern” can emerge, which can make the virus more transmissible, pose a risk of re-infection or evading vaccines.
So far, although Covid vaccines have been shown to be lightly less effective against new mutations, experts say they are confident the jabs will still protect against severe disease and death.
Prof Jonathan Stoye, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, said it wasnot surprising that the new variant contained some familiar mutations.
“The minute you start putting selection pressure on this virus, you start selecting particularly for things that give it the ability to escape immune responses, and I think that is what we are seeing here,” he said.
Scientists have explained that the virus has more opportunity to mutate when case numbers are high.
Therefore the fewer cases of infection, driven by lockdowns, the less chance it will have to change.
Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, told the PA news agency: “The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more people who are infected, the more likely it is that this virus will change and evolve and form new variants.
“Variants have been generated in everybody who’s infected, really, at one level or another.
“The more the virus does spread, the more it replicates, the more chances it has to change.”
He added: “One way of trying to put the can on the lid on the number of variants being generated is to try and control the spread of the virus.”
The Government has tightened the UK's borders in order to shut out new coronavirus variants.
People arriving from other countries now have to quarantine for 10 days or face fines or a prison sentence.
If they are arriving from one of the 33 risk countries, they must self isoalte in one of the Government managed quarantine hotels.
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