Covid variants: What are they and will vaccines work?

A variant of concern first identified in Brazil has now been found in the UK. Public health officials are investigating the six cases and are deploying more testing to see if it has spread to more people. Some variants, like this one, appear to be more contagious and there are concerns vaccines may not work quite so well against them.

By Michelle Roberts

Health editor, BBC News online, 2 March 2021

What are these new variants?

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

Experts' concerns focus on a few:

A UK or Kent variant (also known as B.1.1.7) now dominant in much of Britain, which has spread to more than 50 countries and appears to be mutating yet again

A South Africa variant (B.1.351) found in at least 20 other countries, including the UK

A variant from Brazil (P1) detected in four travellers to Japan which has now been found in the UK too

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.

Coronavirus variants: The science explained

Are the new ones more dangerous?

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.

What's happening to the virus?

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.

Another new coronavirus variant seen in the UK

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

South Africa coronavirus variant: What's the risk?

UK variant has mutated again, scientists say

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

Will vaccines still work?

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.

What is being done about it?

More variants will emerge.

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

South Africa variant found in Hampshire village

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.

News date: 2021-03-02


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