Covid UK: Boris Johnson warns of new ‘super strain’ from Brazil

Boris Johnson today claimed No10 is ‘taking steps’ to protect the UK from a Brazilian Covid variant which experts fear is similar to the highly contagious Kent and South African strains.

The Prime Minister revealed officials were looking at ways to stop the variant found in travellers from Brazil arriving in Tokyo, Japan — but dodged questions about whether Britain would adopt a travel ban.

Speaking to MPs this afternoon, he said: ‘We are concerned about the new Brazilian variant.

‘We already have tough measures, as you know, to stop from new infections come from abroad. We are taking steps to do that in response to the Brazilian variation.’

Scientists working in Britain have not yet announced any coronavirus cases caused by the variant on UK soil, although it is likely widespread in Brazil already.

It is normal for viruses to mutate and early signs don’t suggest that any of the new variants of coronavirus are more deadly than others, but in some places it is evolving to be able to spread faster.

If the virus is faster spreading it will inevitably lead to more cases which will in turn lead to a higher death count, even if the strain itself isn’t more dangerous.

The variant that emerged in Kent, now estimated to be around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor, has quickly become the dominant form of the virus in England and has led to the country’s longest and toughest lockdown since March 2020.

There is no evidence to suggest vaccines will be any less effective against this variant. Pfizer, maker of the first jab to be approved, tested theirs on the similar UK and South Africa variants and said it still worked just as well. 

The Prime Minister revealed ministers were looking at ways to stop a variant of the variant found in Brazil ¿ but dodged questions about whether Britain would adopt a travel ban

The Prime Minister revealed ministers were looking at ways to stop a variant of the variant found in Brazil ¿ but dodged questions about whether Britain would adopt a travel ban

The Prime Minister revealed ministers were looking at ways to stop a variant of the variant found in Brazil — but dodged questions about whether Britain would adopt a travel ban

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks ¿ the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil ¿ have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks ¿ the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil ¿ have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread 

The mutated variant of coronavirus was discovered in Japan last week in four people who had arrived on a flight from Brazil.

Scientists said it had similarities to that of the highly contagious variants in Britain and South Africa. 

Namely, it has a genetic mutation called N501Y, which changes the shape of the spike proteins found on the outside of the virus.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT? 

Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1

Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.

Is it in the UK? Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of B.1.1.248, but this doesn’t rule it out completely.

Why should we care? The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.

What do the mutations do?

The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people’s bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious. 

Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor. 

Even if the virus doesn’t appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.

Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant. 

E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.

Will our vaccines still protect us?

There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.

The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation.

Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in  a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.

They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.

And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines. 

The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.

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This mutation makes the virus more able to latch onto the receptors inside the body that it targets, essentially meaning it successfully makes it past the body’s natural defences more often.

Therefore people who are exposed to the virus become infected more often than they would if the other person was infected with an older, less contagious strain.

A World Health Organization report on the variant last week said: ‘The variant was identified when whole-genome sequencing was conducted on samples from 4 travellers from Brazil who were tested at the airport…

‘Through our regional offices, we are working with both Japanese and Brazilian authorities to evaluate the significance of these findings. 

‘We are also working with our Viral Evolution Working Group to assess the significance of this, and if this variant as well as others identified in recent months result in changes in transmissibility, clinical presentation or severity, or if they impact on countermeasures, including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.’

It added: ‘The same comprehensive approach to controlling Covid-19 works against these variants. 

‘At an individual level, protective measures work for all identified variants: physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue.’

Speaking in this afternoon’s Liaison Committee meeting, Boris Johnson said: ‘We are concerned about the new Brazilian variant.

‘We already have tough measures… to protect this country from new infections coming in from abroad.

‘We are taking steps to do that in respect of the Brazilian variant.’

He added: ‘There are lots of questions we still have about that variant, we don’t know for instance, any more than we know whether the South African variant is vaccine resistant.’

It is too early on in the variant’s discovery for politicians or scientists to be confident about how the changes to the virus will affect outbreaks.

Lab testing suggests its N501Y mutation could make it more transmissible – the UK variant with the same change is estimated to be around 56 per cent more infectious, but other changes to the virus may affect this, too.

And another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, which is also on the spike protein, may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan said in its report that the people infected with the variant were found in airport screening in Tokyo on January 2.

They had travelled from Amazonas, a state in the north of Brazil which contains the city Manaus, home to two million people and the first place the variant was found.

The disease institute (NIID) said: ‘Information on the variant isolate is limited to viral genome sequence data. 

‘Further investigation is necessary to assess infectivity, pathogenicity, and impact on laboratory diagnosis and vaccine efficacy of this variant strain.

‘NIID recommends that persons infected with the variant isolate should be monitored in an isolated room and active epidemiological investigation should be initiated including contact tracing (with source investigation) and monitoring of the clinical course.’

Ministers and experts have said the repeated emergence of new variants is a warning sign that the coronavirus is evolving frequently and that some of the evolutions make significant changes to how the virus works.

Although the variants spotted already don’t seem to make the virus more deadly or have the ability to get past a vaccine, the more different variants there are, the more likely it is than one will have a mutation that spells disaster.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a virologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban, South Africa, told The Telegraph: ‘This variant is a wake up call that we should try to really decrease transmission of SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus]. 

‘It is clear that if you leave it circulating, the virus has the ability to outsmart us and become better at transmission and evasion of the antibody response.’

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