PHE has now found 90 cases of South African coronavirus variant

Public Health England has now found 90 cases of South African coronavirus variant as thousands more people test positive for the Kent strain – but worrying Brazil mutation has STILL not showed up yet

  • African strain likely to be more prevalent because UK does random sampling
  • PHE said it still had not detected any cases of the Brazil variant causing alarm
  • That strain – called P.1 – shares some mutations with South African variant

Nearly 100 cases of the South African coronavirus variant have been spotted in Britain, Public Health England revealed today.

PHE said that, as of January 27, the B.1.351 strain – sometimes known as VOC-202012/02 – had been picked up 90 times through genomics sequencing since December.

It is likely to be far more widespread because UK officials only analyse 10 per cent of random positive samples from the Government’s national testing programme.

The South African variant has key mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people.

Meanwhile, PHE’s report showed about 28,000 cases of the Kent variant had been picked up by genomics sequencing. Again, this is vastly smaller than the actual number of cases because PHE only looks at one in 10 positive samples.

This variant has already become the dominant strain in the UK, accounting for two-thirds of all new cases, and infected millions of Brits.

PHE said it still had not detected any cases of the Brazil variant which has been causing international alarm. 

That strain – called P.1 – has some of the same mutations as the South African variant which open the door to antibody-resistance. 

Experts say just because the strain has not been picked up yet, does not mean it is not already here.

These are the daily average of cases per million people in the countries that could be on the UK quarantine list published later today 

South Africa is expected to be added to the UK quarantine list due to be published later today in a bid to prevent more cases of the B.1.351 strain entering the UK. 

The country will join 30 other ‘high risk’ countries believed to also include Brazil, Portugal, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, much of South America and southern Africa.

These areas have been chosen because of dangerous variants that have emerged there or because they have rocketing infection and death rates.

Returning travellers will be forced to quarantine in hotels for 10 days and they’ll have to pay for their own accomodation.

The PHE figures revealed the Kent strain had been picked up through genomic sequencing 28,122 times, which had increased by 3,714 cases since the last update a week ago. 

The data also showed that there had been 14 confirmed cases of another Brazilian variant, known as P.2,  in the UK.

Experts say they are not concerned about this strain because it does not have any problematic mutations.   

There are growing fears that P.1, the other Brazil variant, and the South African strain will make the current crop of vaccines less effective.

Moderna and Pfizer – two American firms which developed two of the breakthrough vaccines – have already announced they are developing booster shots to target the variants.

Lab tests done by both firms showed each of their vaccines are significantly less potent against the South African variant.

The companies said their vaccines produced a high enough level of antibodies to kill the mutant strain.

But, because no vaccine is perfect, there’s always a risk someone who is immunised can still catch Covid. The new variants may increase the chance of this happening.

Both strains share the E484K mutation which is thought to be an escape mutation which can ‘hide’ from antibody responses.

However, in a huge boost to Britain’s vaccination programme, laboratory tests have found the Kent variant which is currently the dominant Covid strain in the UK has no impact on the current crop of jabs.

What variants are causing panic around the world? 

Kent variant

Real name: B.1.1.7

When was it discovered? The variant was first found in the South East of England and can be traced back to September 2020.

What mutations does it have? It has 23 mutations, some of which change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The main mutation is known as N501Y. This appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread.

Why is it causing worry? UK studies have shown it is between 50 and 70 per cent more infectious than the regular strain, which has made it harder to control. Preliminary studies also show it is about 30 per cent more deadly than previous versions.

How many people have caught it in the UK? It is the dominant strain in Britain and accounts for the majority of new cases. 

Brazil variant 

Real name: P.1

When was it discovered? In Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.

What mutations does it have? P.1 has 17 mutations, three of which are particularly concerning to scientists.

Like the Kent variant, it also has the N501Y mutation which suggests it’s more infectious and possibly more lethal.  

It also has a spike alteration named E484K, which scientists believe may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies.

Researchers suspect this is the case because strains with this mutation have been shown to reinfect people who caught and beat older versions of Covid. 

Another key mutation in the variant, named K417T, has the potential to ‘possibly escape some antibodies’, according to British experts.

This mutation is less well-studied and the ramifications of this are still being researched.  

Why is it causing worry? There have been a number of proven cases of people catching this variant after beating older versions of the virus. It strongly suggests the variant can evade natural immunity and possibly even vaccines.

How many people have caught it in the UK? It’s not. 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 the variant, but this doesn’t rule it out completely. 

South African variant 

Real name: B.1.351

When was it discovered? Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, in mid-December.

What mutations does it have? The South African variant carries 21 mutations, including E484K and N501Y.

Why is it causing worry? Those two mutations suggest it is more infectious than the older version of Covid and raise the possibility of antibody resistance. However, Sir Patrick Vallance has said there is no reason the South African or Brazilian strains would become dominant in the UK, because they don’t have any evolutionary edge over the Kent strain currently plaguing the country, which is just as transmissible.

How many people have caught it in the UK? At least 77 Brits have been infected with this variant, though the number is likely to be far higher because PHE is only testing random positive samples. 

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