Covid variants: What are they and will vaccines work?’on February 16, 2021 at 3:41 pm

- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -

The UK is stepping up testing to find and stop cases from spreading in the community.


image copyrightGetty Images

New variants of coronavirus are emerging that are more infectious than the one that started the pandemic.

One of these, first found in Kent, could become the world’s dominant strain, the head of the UK’s genetic surveillance programme has predicted.

There are concerns vaccines may not work quite so well against some variants.

There are many thousands of different versions, or variants, of Covid circulating.

Experts’ concerns focus on a few:

  • A UK or Kent variant now dominant in much of Britain, which has spread to more than 50 countries and appears to be mutating yet again. The UK is stepping up testing to find and stop cases spreading
  • A South Africa variant found in at least 20 other countries, including the UK
  • A variant from Brazil

It’s not unexpected that new variants have developed – all viruses mutate as they make copies of themselves to spread and thrive.

Most of these differences are inconsequential. A few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival. But some can make it more infectious or threatening.

There is no evidence that any of them cause much more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.

As with the original version, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.

For the UK variant there is some research suggesting it may be associated with a 30% higher risk of death. The evidence is not strong and the data is still uncertain though.

Measures such as washing your hands, keeping your distance from other people and wearing a face covering will still help prevent infections. Because the new variants appear to spread more easily it is important to be extra vigilant.

The UK, South Africa and Brazil variants could be much more contagious or easy to catch.

All three have undergone changes to their spike protein – the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.

As a result, they seem to be better at infecting cells and spreading.

Experts think the UK or “Kent” strain emerged in September and may be up to 70% more transmissible or infectious. The latest research by Public Health England puts it between 30% and 50%.

The South Africa variant emerged in October, and has more potentially important changes in the spike protein. Experts have recently found a small number of cases of the UK variant that have one of these more concerning changes too.

It involves a key mutation – called E484K – that may help the virus evade parts of the immune system called antibodies.

The Brazil variant emerged in July and has this E484K mutation too.

What are variants and how do they happen?

Current vaccines were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work against the new ones, although perhaps not quite as well.

Early results suggest the Pfizer vaccine protects against the new variants, but is slightly less effective.

Two new coronavirus vaccines that could be approved soon – one from Novavax and another from Janssen – appear to offer some protection too.

Data from the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine team suggests it protects just as well against the new UK variant. It offers less protection against the South Africa variant – although it should still protect against severe illness.

Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is effective against the South Africa variant, although the immune response may not be as strong or long-lasting.

Variants could emerge in the future that are more different again.

Even in the worst case scenario, vaccines could be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match – in a matter or weeks or months, if necessary, say experts.

As with flu, where a new shot is given each year to account for any changes in circulating flu viruses, something similar could happen for coronavirus.

More variants will emerge.

Scientists around the world are on the look-out and any important ones will be closely studied and monitored.

Experts are already working on updating coronavirus vaccines. The UK Government has announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, with a pre-order of 50m doses.

Urgent testing for the South Africa variant and other new versions of coronavirus with the E484K mutation is being done in parts of England.

- Advertisement -




Rafiq ‘incredibly hurt’ by Root comments on racism at Yorkshireon November 11, 2021 at 4:13 pm

Azeem Rafiq says he is "incredibly hurt" that England captain Joe Root said he could not recall ever witnessing racism at Yorkshire.

Justin Welby: Queen set example at Philip’s funeralon February 4, 2022 at 6:50 pm

Justin Welby praises her for "doing the right thing", ahead of the 70th anniversary of her reign.Image source, WPA PoolThe Queen's commitment to "doing...

England v India: Stuart Broad and Jasprit Bumrah involved in record-breaking over at Edgbastonon July 2, 2022 at 11:34 am

Watch as India's Jasprit Bumrah sets a new Test record of 35 runs in a single over during day two of the fifth Test...

Comic-Con: Neil Gaiman’s epic comic Sandman finally reaches the screenon July 25, 2022 at 8:06 am

The story which follows a quest by Dream is one the most popular graphic novels of all timeThe story which follows a quest by...

Boris Johnson: I broke no rules over Christmas partieson December 13, 2021 at 12:41 pm

The PM defends his actions after being pictured taking part in a quiz, but says the event will be investigated.Other allegations about parties across...