Dozens of cases of the South African coronavirus variant have already been reported in Great Britain, it was revealed today.
The Covid-19 Genomics Consortium UK (COG-UK) said 54 Britons have tested positive for the variant so far, with the first case being spotted last October.
There have likely been many more than 54 cases of the variant, as COG-UK only analyzes 10 percent of random positive coronavirus samples.
The South African strain – called B.1.351 – is believed to be at least 60 percent more contagious than regular Covid and even more transmissible than the Kent variety. It also has important mutations on its spike protein that open the door to vaccine resistance or natural immunity.
But scientists studying the variant say they haven’t found evidence yet that it will make the current wave of vaccines less potent.
In an effort to prevent other troubling variants from popping up around the world, including strains in Brazil with similar mutations, the UK has closed its borders to anyone who has not tested negative within 72 hours of traveling.
The government is determined not to let potentially vaccine-resistant variants hinder its immunization drive, which is on track to deliver a dose to the 14 million most vulnerable Britons by mid-February.
At least three major coronavirus variants have been observed in Britain in recent months – from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – and they appear to be evolving to spread faster and evade some parts of the immune system, although scientists don’t yet think that they did that. yet gotten to the point where I completely escaped the vaccines
Most cases of the South African variant – called B.1.351 – have been discovered in the UK and South Africa. But scientists say the UK has found so many because it sequences many samples
The COG-UK report also revealed that the first cases were spotted last October
In their 41-page report, COG-UK said tests had already been conducted on the South African variant, with some of its mutations not reducing the vaccine’s effectiveness.
But they added that not all mutations found on the fast-spreading species in the UK and South Africa have been controlled.
In a scientific study published as a preprint on medRxivthe scientists describe the genetic makeup and distribution of the South African species.
Dr Christina Pagel, member of Independent SAGE and researcher at University College London, said, ‘What you don’t want is to go to September and suddenly you have a new variant … and you have to start all over’
“This line originated in South Africa after the first epidemic wave in a badly affected metropolitan area, Nelson Mandela Bay, located on the coast of the Eastern Cape Province,” they wrote.
“This line spread quickly and within weeks became the dominant line in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces.”
They added: “While the full significance of the mutations has yet to be determined, the genomic data, showing the rapid displacement of other lineages, suggests that this lineage may be associated with increased transmissibility.”
It comes after Dr. Christina Pagel, who is part of the independent SAGE group, who was highly critical of the government’s pandemic response, told The times: ‘We know that this virus is mutating and it mutates in ways that could potentially bypass the vaccine.
‘Once we start vaccinating, we really want to vaccinate everyone before they have a chance to mutate, because then you are much better protected …’
‘What you don’t want is to go to September and suddenly you have a new variety – whether we imported it from somewhere else or bred our own – and then you vaccinated 40 million people and you have to start all over.
‘I just can’t imagine anything worse. So that’s why I think you actually want to go for oppression now. ‘
Coronavirus, like all pathogens, is constantly evolving as it spreads. But most of these changes make no difference to the virus or the way it behaves.
COG-UK said more than 700 individual mutations have been observed in the coronavirus in Great Britain so far.
But rarely does the bug mutate in a way that gives it an evolutionary advantage – like the ability to spread more easily or reinfect people who have previously caught and defeated an older version of the virus.
There are at least two reports that nurses in Brazil have been re-infected with new species there, despite having natural immunity to the first wave in the spring.
While reinfection has not been widely proven, the UK government is not seizing the risk and has introduced sweeping travel restrictions on everyone entering the country.
Dr. Pagel has warned that by spreading the virus too much during the vaccine rollout, it will give it more opportunities to mutate.
The UK registers 37,535 more Covid cases and 599 deaths as infections recede
Britain today recorded 37,535 more coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours and 599 deaths as the second wave continues to slow.
Today’s number of infections has fallen by almost a fifth from the 46,169 recorded last Monday and a third of the number two weeks ago, when the country reported 58,784 new cases.
The number of deaths has risen slightly from the 529 recorded a week ago, but the number of fatalities is a few weeks behind infections due to the time it takes between catching and becoming seriously ill with the virus. It means that the effects of the lockdown on January 4 may not be felt in the mortality rates until next week.
In another ray of hope, Boris Johnson revealed today that 4 million people have now been vaccinated and vowed that life would be “ very different in the spring. ” Ministers pledged to inoculate Britain’s 13 million most vulnerable residents by February 15, with the aim of easing the endless cycle of restrictions.
Meanwhile, London’s devastating winter wave of coronavirus appears to have peaked as official data shows that infections decreased in all 32 boroughs last week and deaths and hospitalizations began to level off.
Vaccines have been developed to create immune responses that target the virus’s spike proteins.
Mutations that occur at the peak can make the protein unrecognizable to the immune system and thereby allow disease to slip by.
Some scientists have warned that giving half a dose of vaccines – which the UK is doing to expand its limited supply to more people – could expose the virus to low levels of the immune cells it is supposed to destroy.
If this happens often and the viruses discover they can get past the weak immune response, scientists are concerned that it could lead to a version of the virus that could continue to spread even in vaccinated people.
Professor Chris Whitty admitted this month, “That’s a real concern, but a fairly minor real concern within the system.”
“ The common view was that the magnitude of the increase in risk is small enough that, when compared to this ability to double the number of people actually vaccinated, the public health arguments are really strong for doing what we’ve decided to do. ‘
He added, “ Obviously if we had an infinite vaccine we might have taken different approaches, but we don’t.
Right now, for the next three to four months, the number of vaccines available will limit our ability to get through the 25 to 30 million people we have to do.
“ While this is such a fast-moving virus at the moment, given the risk ratio, our opinion was very strong that the benefits to the UK at this point of the epidemic were beneficial for us to do so. ”
The coronavirus is expected to eventually mutate in a way that will make vaccines less effective, but scientists don’t yet know when or how drastic this will be.
It could mean that people are vaccinated every year, just like with the flu.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said it is likely that “frequent, perhaps annual” vaccination programs are needed to deal with new variants of Covid-19.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘The first signs are that the vaccines will be perfectly suited for that new strain.
‘Other strains of virus will emerge – that’s what happens with viruses, they mutate.
‘Flu is a little different every year and we adjust our flu vaccines to that every year.
‘I think it is entirely possible that the Covid vaccine will need to be adapted from year to year over time to deal with new strains.
‘The good news is that with these new vaccines we are using new technology and that can be done very quickly.
“So yes, it is likely that there should be frequent, perhaps annual, flu vaccination programs that will treat these new variants, but it’s a little too early to be sure.”