Vaccines could be less effective against the variant, experts have warned, and it’s thought to be highly contagious and capable of reinfecting people who’ve already developed antibodies.
So, as we gear up for a relaxation of lockdown, will the variant change anything? Here’s what we know so far.
What is the Brazil variant?
The Brazil variant (P.1) was first detected in January in travellers to Japan from Manaus in northern Brazil – this is why the variant is also referred to as the ‘Manaus variant’.
Experts believe it could be more contagious than the original strain of Covid-19. The variant’s mutations are similar (but not the same) as those seen in the South Africa variant.
Variants of coronavirus are occurring due to spontaneous mutation. A mutation is a change to genetic material – and it’s not unusual for a virus to mutate.
A spontaneous mutation is the result of errors in natural biological processes. Basically, “when viruses replicate, they make mistakes,” Dr Julian Tang, virologist at the University of Leicester, previously explained.
“But if they are replicating in a new host [person] and immune system, then more of these mistakes may form a pattern that allows the virus to adapt to the new host – like the 501Y, 484K, 417N S protein mutations that we are seeing already in the South African/Brazilian variants.”
When was the Brazil variant discovered in the UK?
On February 28, the government announced the Brazil variant had been identified in the UK. Public Health England (PHE) confirmed six cases of the P.1 variant have been confirmed – three in England and three in Scotland.
It’s understood that officials became aware of the English cases on Friday (Feb 28) and the Scottish ones on Saturday (Feb 27), according to PA.
Two cases were confirmed in South Gloucestershire, but the third English case has not been located. PHE says the person did not complete their test registration card fully, so their contact details are absent.
A hunt is underway to locate this third person. Anyone who took a test on February 12 or 13 and has not received a result, or has an uncompleted test registration card, is being asked to come forward immediately.
The Scottish Government said three residents who returned to north-east Scotland from Brazil, via Paris and London, tested positive for Covid-19. The tests, completed in early February, were passed to the UK’s sequencing programme and were identified as being the Brazil variant.
How did the variant end up here?
Direct flights from Brazil to the UK have been banned since January 15, so you’d be forgiven for wondering how this happened.
But UK nationals or residents have been allowed to return via indirect routes as long as they quarantine for 10 days. Initially, there was no mandatory testing on arrival and arrivals were allowed to travel home (potentially via public transport) before isolating.
Now, those arriving in the UK must stay in a quarantine hotel by the airport, but this was only introduced on February 15. Since that date, arrivals have also been required to take a coronavirus test on days two and eight of their self-isolation period.
Will the variant impact vaccines?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said more research is needed on this and other new variants, but it is possible that vaccines may be less effective.
“There is evidence to suggest that some of the mutations in the P.1 variant may affect its transmissibility and antigenic profile, which may affect the ability of antibodies generated through a previous natural infection or through vaccination to recognise and neutralise the virus,” it says.
Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at PHE, added that there are concerns the Brazil variant can re-infect people who have previously had Covid, and that it has the ability to lessen the impact of vaccines.
“Manaus, in particular, reported that a number of individuals were re-infected with this variant, and that suggests that having had prior immunity from primary infection wasn’t enough to reduce infection and transmission,” she said. “And that may also impact on the vaccine.”
NHS England’s Professor Stephen Powis said vaccines could be “rapidly adapted” against the new variants. AstraZeneca has already said it is developing a Covid-19 vaccine against new strains of the disease, which could be given to Brits as a ‘booster’ jab by autumn.
What about the relaxation of lockdown?
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned the new variants could threaten the UK’s plans to relax restrictions.
“We are going to be faced with these [variants] in the next six months as we move towards relaxing measures,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. “There are going to be challenges on the way and there is always a risk that we might have to go backwards, and that’s what nobody wants.”
There are no official plans to push back the roadmap dates just yet though, and Dr Hopkins highlighted that although P.1 cases have been detected in the UK, it’s hoped it won’t become a dominant variant.
“I think the importance here is that, while we’re in national restrictions, while we have very transmissible variants that are circulating, we hope there are not any other variants that will be able to take over,” she said.
“However, as we start to release national restrictions with the schools going back, that is where the risk starts to increase, and that’s why we are clamping down on a number of measures to prevent the spread of these variants.”
What happens in the areas with the Brazil variant?
Officials are contacting other passengers on the flight from London to Aberdeen, where the three residents returned from Brazil. The Scottish cases are not thought to be connected to the three confirmed cases in England.
Meanwhile, surge testing is set to begin in South Gloucestershire. Residents who live in five postcode areas, who are aged over 16 and do not have symptoms of Covid-19, are invited to come forward for testing. This is in addition to people who do have symptoms being encouraged to take tests.
People who travel into the areas BS32 0, BS32 8, BS32 9, BS34 5 and BS34 6 for work or to visit someone they are in a support bubble with are also able to have a test. The identified postcode areas fall within Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke – and are different to those who were part of the previous community surge testing programme in February.
Drive-in surge testing sites are open at Stoke Gifford Parkway Park & Ride, as well as The Mall Coach Park at The Mall Cribbs Causeway.
A range of community-based locations, where residents can walk-in to collect a test kit, take it home and complete it, then return it for processing, are also open. The programme is expected to run for one week, ending on March 7, with the facilities open each day.
Sara Blackmore, director of Public Health at South Gloucestershire Council, urged people who were invited to come forward and take a test.
“We are working together with local and regional health partners, Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, to deliver this swift, safe and co-ordinated response, with an enhanced community testing offer available to people in and around areas where this variant has been discovered,” she said.