Six cases of the troublesome Brazilian variant of coronavirus have been found in Britain, Public Health England (PHE) announced today.
Three cases of the mutant variant first detected in Manaus in the South American country have been found in England, and three in Scotland.
The Brazilian variant carries the E484K mutation which scientists believe allows it to partially dodge vaccine-triggered immunity. Several studies have shown the current crop of vaccines are less effective against this mutation.
The first two cases of the P1 strain are from one household in South Gloucestershire with a history of travel to Brazil, but the third is not linked.
The whereabouts of that individual is unknown, as PHE says the person did not complete their test registration card so follow-up details are unavailable.
Officials are asking anyone who took a test on February 12 or 13 and who has not received a result or has an uncompleted test registration card to come forward immediately.
PHE and NHS Test and Trace have said South Gloucestershire will provide additional community testing for Covid-19, while the passengers on Swiss Air flight, LX318 travelling from Sao Paulo, through Zurich, and landing in London Heathrow on February 10 will be contacted.
The World Health Organisation has been informed of the cases, which has been designated ‘of concern’ as it shares key mutations with the variant detected in South Africa.
Cases of the mutant strain were detected in France, Italy, the Netherlands and the Faroe Islands earlier this month, amid warnings from British scientists that it was only ‘a matter of time’ before it landed on UK shores.
It comes after Britain today reported a further 6,035 coronavirus cases within the previous 24 hours and 144 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test – marking a huge drop on last week.
An aerial view of the Parque Taruma cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, February 25, 2021
Six cases of the troublesome Brazilian variant of coronavirus have been found in Britain, Public Health England (PHE) announced today
The above map shows which countries have reported cases of the concerning Brazilian variant of coronavirus. It has now been found in six European countries
Britain today reported a further 6,035 coronavirus cases within the previous 24 hours and 144 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test – marking a huge drop on last week
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.
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.
It has a third, less well-studied mutation called K417T, and the ramifications of this are still being researched.
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.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible.’
Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s strategic response director for Covid-19, said: ‘We have identified these cases thanks to the UK’s advanced sequencing capabilities which means we are finding more variants and mutations than many other countries and are therefore able to take action quickly.
‘The important thing to remember is that Covid-19, no matter what variant it is, spreads in the same way. That means the measures to stop it spreading do not change.’
In South Gloucestershire, one of the individuals had travelled back from Brazil in mid-February, before the Government introduced the quarantine hotel policy.
Officials said they isolated at home with the rest of their household, while one member developed symptoms before getting a test.
There were three other further cases in that household, two of which were confirmed as the Manaus variant with genetic sequencing, but the other two were not sequenced.
The remaining case, currently not located, is not believed to be linked to the others because the virus was found to have slight genetic differences.
PHE and NHS Test and Trace have said South Gloucestershire will provide additional community testing for Covid-19.
‘Additional community testing, also known as surge testing, will follow the same process that was in place in parts of South Gloucestershire earlier this month,’ the authorities said.
‘It will invite residents who live in five postcode sectors, who are aged 16 and over and who are asymptomatic (without symptoms of Covid-19), to come forward for testing, as well as people who travel into that area for work or to visit someone they are in a support bubble with.
‘The identified postcode areas fall within Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke and are different to those that were part of the community surge testing programme which took place between February 7 and 21. There is no connection between the two programmes.’
PHE and NHS Test and Trace are contacting the passengers on Swiss Air flight, LX318 travelling from Sao Paulo, through Zurich, and landing in London Heathrow on February 10.
The remaining unlocated case is not believed to be linked to the others because the virus was found to have slight genetic differences.
The Scottish Government said three residents who returned to north-east Scotland from Brazil, via Paris and London, subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.
The tests, completed in early February, were passed to the UK’s sequencing programme and were identified as being the Manaus variant.
Officials are contacting the other passengers on their flight from London to Aberdeen.
The cases are not thought to be connected to the three confirmed cases in England.
Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: ‘The identification of this new variant is a concern but we are taking every possible precaution.
‘This new variant demonstrates how serious Covid is and reinforces the need to minimise the spread of the virus.’
Cases of the mutant strain were detected in Europe last month, with the Netherlands declaring two cases of the variant in travellers returning from Brazil on January 28.
France had announced four by January 22, and Italy said it had identified three cases in travellers returning from Brazil by January 17.
The Danish-controlled Faroe Islands were the first European area to reveal they had a case of the variant on January 12, which was also identified in a traveller arriving from Brazil.
Spain claimed it had detected a care on February 5, in a 44-year-old man returning from Brazil.
And the German state of Hesse, in the west of the country, claimed to have identified two cases by January 22.
But these cases are yet to be rubber-stamped by international experts.
There is mounting concern over the Brazilian strain because of its E484K mutation.
It has also been found to carry the N501Y mutation, which scientists say made the Kent variant far more infectious and allowed it to rapidly spread across Britain.
Another key mutation in the variant, named K417T, has the potential to ‘possibly escape some antibodies’, according to COG-UK.
It comes after a study warned the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may be only 10 per cent effective against the South African strain of the virus.
Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert from Warwick University and member of the SAGE sub-group SPI-M, claimed the finding could have ‘significant implications’ on Britain’s lockdown-easing plans.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘It means that even with high levels of vaccination there will be a lot of people that could potentially get infected and could potentially pass it on and it may mean that more restrictions might be needed for longer if we can’t get on top of this.’
Despite the concerning new finding, UK ministers have urged Brits to keep faith in the vaccine, saying there is ‘no evidence’ it will not block severe disease and death.
Top experts – including Oxford researchers and the UK’s top vaccine panel the JCVI – believe it will still protect millions from getting severely ill.
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