The discovery of 77 UK cases of a Covid-19 variant first detected in India could be a cause for concern, an expert has said.
The figures come from the latest update of PHE’s surveillance of the distribution of different Covid-19 variants across the UK, based on data up to April 7th.
Officials have designated B.1.617 a “variant under investigation” (VUI) rather than a “variant of concern” (VOC) such as the so-called Brazil or South African variants.
PHE said there is currently no evidence to suggest that disease from the newly identified variant is more serious than from previous ones, nor is there current evidence to suggest vaccines are less likely to work against it.
It is understood that the cases detected in England are dispersed across different parts of the country.
Many are linked to international travel but investigations are under way.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the variant features two “escape mutations” – E484Q and L452R – which “are causing people to be concerned”.
“There’s laboratory evidence that both of these are escape mutations,” he said.
“Basically, applying what we know about other human coronaviruses would suggest that this is going to be even less controlled by vaccine.
“But we don’t know that for certain at the moment.”
According to PHE, the variant “includes a number of mutations, including E484Q, L452R, and P681R”.
It said that “all appropriate public health interventions will be undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing,” after the variant is detected, with PHE and international partners monitoring the situation “closely”.
In India, Covid-19 rates are soaring, with more than 13.9 million cases having been confirmed there in total and 172,000 deaths.
British prime minister Boris Johnson has scaled down a planned trip to India due to its worsening Covid situation.
Prof Hunter said it is “not surprising” that the variant has come from India.
“So it’s not surprising. India has got a huge pandemic, and therefore that’s where you’re going to be getting the variant.”
He added: “The big, big anxiety with this one is that it seems – and again this is still a little bit speculative because it hasn’t been confirmed – but . . . there are two mutations here that are causing people to be concerned.”
PHE said that mutations of the 484 spike protein have been associated with the Brazil and South African variants.
The E484K mutation is reported to result in weaker neutralisation by antibodies in lab experiments, but the E484Q mutation is different and still subject to investigation.
Viruses by their nature mutate often, with more than 18,000 mutations discovered thus far over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the overwhelming majority of which have no effect on the behaviour of the virus.
PHE’s latest findings mean there are now seven VUIs and four VOCs being tracked by scientists in the UK. – PA