Samuel LovettWed, 17 February 2021, 9:07 am
The variant, known as B1525, has been linked to 33 infections in Britain, and has spread to a total of 11 countries worldwide – including Denmark, the US, France and Australia.
Genome sequencing has shown that it was first identified in the UK in mid-December but can also be traced to Nigeria, where 12 cases have been recorded.
The new variant, which is being investigated by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, carries the same E484K mutation present within the worrying South African and Brazilian variants.
This particular mutation changes the shape of the virus’ spike protein – which is responsible for gaining entry to human cells – in a way that makes it less recognisable to the body’s immune system and more resistant to the current generation of vaccines.
However, the latest studies and research indicate that while the vaccines may be less effective against these new variants in minimising transmission and mild disease, they continue to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalisation and death.
The variant carries a further mutation (Q677H) on its spike protein – though scientists have insisted it remains unclear how this will affect the ability of the virus to bind to human cells.
This new variant also shares some similarities with the Kent variant, which is thought to be more transmissible and deadly than the previously dominant version of the virus.
Denmark has identified the most cases of the new variant (35), followed by the UK and then the US (10). It has also been detected in Jordan, Belgium, Ghana and Spain.
None of these countries are on Britain’s “red list”, which requires people travelling from or through these nations to quarantine upon arrival in the UK.
Having established one of the most extensive genetic surveillance networks in the world, the UK has identified a number of coronavirus variants since the beginning of the pandemic.
This includes the Kent variant and other variations of this which have acquired the E484K mutation.
A total of 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant have also been detected throughout the UK.
But with scientists sequencing up to 10 per cent of all positive infections, it’s highly likely there are many more cases caused by the different variants that have not yet been picked up.
In response to the new and emerging variants, the government has deploying surge testing and additional sequencing to targeted areas to trace and contain any widespread outbreaks.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, told The Independent the growing presence of the E484K mutation in different populations across the world meant “the virus is very likely to be adapting to our immune response”.
Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, has said the UK was looking at whether those who had already taken a Covid-19 vaccine would need a fresh shot to cover the risk posed by the new mutations.
“It is unlikely that people would have to start [the vaccine treatment] again, it is much more likely that it would be a booster shot – a bit like the annual flu vaccine,” she said earlier this month.
Vaccine manufactures have also started tweaking their candidates to accommodate the new genetic changes emerging within Sars-CoV-2 – the virus responsible for Covid-19.
Earlier this month, AstraZeneca said that a modified version of the Oxford vaccine – one capable of neutralising the South African variant – could be ready by autumn.