Sir Patrick told a Downing Street briefing in January: “It may be that it binds more solidly to the receptor for the virus and gets into cells more easily as a result. It may be that it grows more readily in certain cell types. Those are things that people are looking at and more information will come.”
However, scientists are more confident that vaccines will still protect against the variant, with increasing evidence that those who were infected against the first strain appeared to be protected against the new one.
Moderna announced on Jan 25 that its Covid-19 vaccine produced virus-neutralising antibodies in laboratory tests against new coronavirus variants found in the UK. Pfizer and AstraZeneca also think their vaccines will still work against the UK variant. The same is true of the new, but as yet unlicensed, Novavax vaccine.
Genomic sequencing has identified a mutation of the spike protein, both in the original strain and the newer Kent variant of the virus. The E484K mutation resembles that seen in the South African and Brazilian variants, the part which locks on to human cells – but they are not identical. All have arisen in areas where there have been sharp recent spikes in Covid cases.
Experts have warned it was “inevitable” that the strains already in the UK would mutate as a result of natural selection. However, they said it was too early to determine whether the mutation would become dominant over other forms of Covid.
What do we know about other variants?
A variant called B1525 has been detected in various countries around the world, including 196 cases in the UK.
Dr Simon Clarke of the University of Reading 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.”
Two cases of a new variant, that was first reported in the Philippines, were recorded in England for the first time on Mar 16.
Public Health England said the variant contains a number of notable mutations, including the E484K spike protein found in the Manaus variant.
And Belgian scientists also discovered a new variant on Mar 22, which is believed to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa.
Liège University researchers spotted the variant, which is called B.1.214, because of a mutation which had never been seen in Belgium before, broadcaster VRT reported.
The new variant is no more dangerous than existing ones active in Belgium and it makes up four per cent of infections, about the same as the Brazilian and South African variants.
“The variant is gaining ground in Belgium and especially around Brussels, in Flemish Brabant and Hainault”, Professor Vincent Bours, a genetics expert, said.
“The variant’s ancestry still needs to be established, but it may have originated in sub-Saharan Africa and may have arrived here as a result of travel.”
How simple is the vaccine update process?
In theory it should be quite straightforward. As long as the changes that need to be made to vaccines are modest (just four or five changes to the more than 1,000 amino acids of the spike protein) then new vaccines can be produced quickly and without lengthy regulatory approval. The new RNA vaccines such as the one made by Pfizer can also be changed more quickly than conventional vaccines.