Scientists have identified another new variant of coronavirus which has potentially concerning mutations.
Known as B.1.525, the “variant under investigation” (VUI) – a technical term – contains a genetic change called E484K, also found in the Brazilian and South African variants.
Public Health England (PHE) has said there is no evidence that the mutations in the new variant make the virus more transmissible or cause severe disease.
It said B.1.525 has been classed as a VUI and as of Tuesday, 38 cases had been identified in the UK. Following a risk assessment with the relevant expert committee, a VUI may be designated a Variant of Concern (VOC).
“Occasionally a mutation occurs that alters how quickly the virus spreads, how infectious it might be or even the severity of the disease it causes,” Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and expert in molecular oncology from Warwick Medical School told HuffPost UK last week. She added: “It is then the virus becomes a variant of concern.”
The B.1.525 variant has also been seen in other countries, including Australia, Denmark, Nigeria, Canada and the US.
Laboratory studies have shown that viruses with the E484K mutation can escape human defences, making them more efficient at evading natural and vaccine-triggered immunity.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE medical director, said: “PHE is monitoring data about emerging variants very closely and where necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, such as extra testing and enhanced contact tracing.
“There is currently no evidence that this set of mutations causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility.
“The best way to stop the spread of the virus is to follow the public health advice – wash your hands, wear a face covering and keep your distance from others.
“While in lockdown, it is important that people stay at home where possible.”
Experts say the variant has alterations in its genetic material that make it similar to the Kent variant, which is the dominant virus in the UK.
Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told the Guardian that the presence of the E484K mutation was known in the South Africa variant to confer a degree of resistance to some vaccines.
He said: “We don’t yet know how well this (new) variant will spread, but if it is successful it can be presumed that immunity from any vaccine or previous infection will be blunted.”
Dr Clarke said B.1.525 should be included in efforts to boost testing to pick up variants of concern.
He said: “I think that until we know more about these variants, any variants which carry E484K should be subject to surge testing as it seems to confer resistance to immunity, however that is generated.”
There are two classifications for Covid variations identified by Nervtag (the government’s new and emerging respiratory viruses advisory group). The more serious is “variant of concern” (VOC).
Variants of concern in the UK include the South African variant, with 202 cases, and the Bristol variant, with 22 cases.
Another “variant under investigation”, first identified in Liverpool, which has been dubbed by the PHE as VUI 202102/01, currently has 56 cases.
The latest variant was initially wrongly classified as a “variant of concern” on the government’s website, but swiftly corrected.
Scientists are already working on new vaccines to target coronavirus variants, some of which may become available during autumn.
Here’s a primer on why so many variants are springing up in the UK.