Covid jabs may be ‘less effective’ against the new Colombian strain, health chiefs warned today.
The variant – called B.1.621 – was placed ‘under investigation’ in England last month.
Reports published by Public Health England reveal immunity gained from a previous infection or vaccines ‘may be less effective’ against the mutant strain.
But PHE said the finding is based on preliminary laboratory evidence, so data is ‘very limited and more research is required’.
There is ‘no evidence’ to suggest the variant is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain, the report states.
Health chiefs upgraded the strain to be a variant under investigation in July after it spread to the UK and scientists spotted it carried some worrying mutations.
These include E484K, which can help it escape antibodies and is also found on the Beta and Gamma variants.
It also has the N501Y, which could help it spread easier. The mutation is also present in Alpha.
Overall, B.1.621 is ‘similar to Beta’, PHE said, which was first identified in South Africa and is thought to be able to partially evade vaccines.
Its presence in France spooked ministers into slapping the country on an ‘amber-plus’ travel quarantine list last month.
The coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, is mutating all the time as a result of genetic errors when it multiplies. Most mutations are harmless.
But ones that make it able to spread quicker or to survive longer inside the human body are the ones that are likely to stick around.
The World Health Organization says the first documented sample of B.1.621 was in Colombia in January.
Another 30 countries have also recorded cases since then, including the US, Spain, Mexico and the Netherlands.
As of Wednesday, scientists had found 37 cases of the variant in England, eight of which were spotted in the previous seven days.
A ‘very small number’ of people infected with B.1.621 have been admitted to hospital, so there is insufficient data to know if the strain is any more severe than other variants.
Infections linked with the strain have been spotted in six regions of the country, but the majority – 18 cases (56.2 per cent) – were found in London.
A further seven cases were identified in the East, while there were three in the South East, one was spotted in each the North West and South West.
Around a third of the infections were found in people aged under 20.
Seven of the 32 cases have been linked with travel from or through Mexico, Spain, Dominican Republic and Colombia.
PHE said the variant has managed to spread in South America – even when Alpha was present – but it does not appear to be particularly fast.
It cautioned there is ‘no evidence’ the variant is outcompeting Delta – which is the dominant strain across the country – and it ‘appears unlikely that it is more transmissible’.
The report said: ‘The level of threat from such a variant depends on its growth and expansion. There is very low certainty around growth estimates at present, however in the current context there is no indication that it is out-competing Delta.
‘Immune escape may contribute to future changes in growth.
‘Epidemiological effects, such as importation and spreading events, may also influence whether it becomes established in the UK.’
REVEALED: ALL 31 COVID VARIANTS ON THE UK’S WATCHLIST
VARIANTS OF CONCERN
The Alpha variant has a mutation called N501Y which could help it spread more easily.
The Beta variant also contains the troublesome N501Y mutation that speeds up transmission.
Additionally, it features the E484K mutation that can help it escape antibodies against other variants.
The variant which first originated in Brazil has both the N501Y and E484K mutation.
The Delta variant has two mutations that may speed up transmission and escape antibodies: E484Q and L452R.
VARIANTS UNDER INVESTIGATION
Theta (E484K and N501Y)
B.1.617.3 (E484Q and L452R)
Lambda (L452Q and F490S)
B.1.621 (N501Y and E484K)
… AND THE OTHERS THAT ARE BEING MONITORED
B.1.1.7 with E484K
B.1.1.7 with S494P
B.1.1.7 with Q677H
B.1 with 214insQAS
Lineage A with R346K, T478R and E484K
Delta like variant with E484A
P.1 + N501T and E484Q
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