Mutant Covid strains 'very unlikely' to stop UK summer, expert says

Mutant Covid strains are ‘very unlikely’ to stop UK enjoying a normal summer as adapting vaccines will keep us ahead of the virus, expert says

  • Prof Sharon Peacock said that tweaking vaccines will allow Britain to ‘stay ahead’
  • She is ‘optimistic’ UK’s jab rollout means government can keep to the ‘roadmap’
  • New virus variants are one of the most likely threats to the easing of restrictions
  • It comes after person who was infected with Brazil variant was found in Croydon
  • Meanwhile another new coronavirus variant was detected in the UK on Thursday 

Mutant strains of the coronavirus are ‘very unlikely’ to stop the UK having a normal summer, a top scientist has said.

Head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK scientific body Professor Sharon Peacock said tweaking vaccines will allow Britain to ‘stay ahead’ of Covid-19.

Prof Peacock said she was ‘optimistic’ Britain’s world-leading jab rollout means the government can keep to the ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown.

New variants of the virus are considered the most likely threat to the easing of restrictions because they may mutant to be resistant to vaccines.

It comes after a person in England who was infected with the Brazil variant of Covid was found in Croydon yesterday.

Meanwhile another new coronavirus variant – which shares a mutation with the Brazil and South African versions – was detected in the UK on Thursday.

But Britain’s vaccine drive is gathering pace, with Matt Hancock revealing last night two in five adults have now been vaccinated as deaths fall ‘faster and faster’.

Head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK scientific body Professor Sharon Peacock said tweaking vaccines will allow Britain to ‘stay ahead’ of Covid-19

PHE now has four variants ‘under investigation’ and four more which it describes as ‘variants of concern’, which include the Brazilian P1 variant

Matt Hancock hails ‘encouraging’ data ahead of first stage of lockdown easing

The average daily number of Covid cases, hospital admissions and deaths are the lowest they have been since the autumn, according to the Health Secretary.

Matt Hancock painted a positive picture regarding the state of coronavirus infections in England in a press conference on Friday, with the average number of cases – 6,685 per day – at their lowest rate since late September.

That pattern was repeated on Friday, with the Government confirming that, as of 9am, there had been a further 5,947 lab-confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK.

The Health Secretary said the decrease in cases meant the Government could continue with its plan of replacing the lockdown – with the first easing on Monday with the return of schools, and all restrictions possibly scrapped by June 21 – with the ‘protection that comes from vaccines and regular testing’.

But Prof Peacock has reassured Britons new mutant strains that were more likely to bypass the vaccine were not taking control in the UK.

She told the Times: ‘New variants are very unlikely to send us back to square one. I’m very optimistic that the vaccines will be rolled out, that they’ll be effective, and that we’ll be in a better place by the summer and autumn.

‘I think we’ve got the capabilities to stay ahead by adapting vaccines, and so I’m an optimist.’

The threat from new variants is one of the government’s four tests the country needs to pass to keep to the lockdown easing timetable.

The other criteria is the vaccine rollout continuing well, jabs shown to reduce hospital admissions and deaths and no surge in hospital cases.

The Brazilian and South African mutations are believed to be more resistant to the vaccines currently in production.

There are at least 295 people infected with the South African variant in Britain, which has surged by seven in the last week.

But Prof Peacock said a spike in this strain may not materialise, adding they are not taking off at the rate the Kent variant did.

She added: ‘There’s no reason for being complacent. I think we have to take them seriously and try to control them as much as possible, but I think it’s actually quite difficult to therefore predict that what you’ve seen in South Africa or Manaus is going to be related to the UK.’

Vaccine firms are looking into adapting current jabs to tackle the Brazilian and South African variants.

Yesterday the mystery person in England who was infected with the Brazil variant of Covid was found in Croydon, south London.

The case was found in a man in Croydon who had recently returned from Brazil. Mr Hancock said the whole household had quarantined and didn’t appear to have spread the virus

UK will have to ‘live with a substantial degree of death’ in post-lockdown era, SAGE adviser says 

The UK will still have to live with ‘substantial’ levels of Covid deaths after lockdowns come to an end because the virus won’t go away, one of the Government’s scientific advisers said yesterday.

Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious disease expert based at University College London and a member of SAGE, said he believes ‘we’ve been through the worst of this’.

But he said vaccines won’t totally get rid of the virus and the country would still have to live with ‘a degree of mortality that will be substantial’.

SAGE has predicted that a third wave of the virus is inevitable and tens of thousands more people will die because millions will be left unprotected by vaccines, which aren’t 100 per cent effective and won’t be taken by everyone. 

At a Downing Street press conference, Matt Hancock and PHE medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins confirmed the man handed himself in on Wednesday at 3pm.

He phoned 119 after a six-day nationwide scramble which saw Test and Trace staff work backwards through the postal system to find out where his swab test was sent.

Mr Hancock praised the ‘dogged’ work of authorities and said there was no sign the virus had been transmitted outside of the man’s household since he was sick.

Scientists will now examine all swab tests from the neighbourhood where he lives to ensure there are no other cases of the troublesome mutation.

The man’s family, who returned home from Brazil last month, had quarantined themselves, he told officials during ‘extensive interviewing’.

Mr Hancock said on Tuesday the search had been narrowed to 379 homes in the South East, but last night revealed it was in London.

Mr Hancock said: ‘We’ve now successfully identified the sixth case of the variant of concern first identified in Manaus in Brazil…

‘The best evidence is that this person in question stayed at home and there is no sign that there has been any onward transmission.

‘But as a precaution we’re putting more testing in in Croydon, where they live, to minimise the risk.’

The Office for National Statistics estimated that 248,000 people across England are infected with the coronavirus, down from 370,000 in its estimate last Friday

The number of people developing Covid symptoms each day, as estimated by the Covid Symptom Study, plateaued in February but has started to drop again in March

More proof Covid variants won’t scupper vaccines: Crucial T cell immunity is NOT hampered by new strains 

Immunity produced by white blood cells is ‘not substantially affected’ by mutated coronavirus variants, scientists have found. 

Experts were concerned the current jabs might not work as well against the South African and Brazilian variants because they changed its shape.

Studies found disease-fighting proteins called antibodies were less effective in the face of the new strains, raising fears they would partially evade vaccine-triggered immunity and cause reinfections. 

But they are only one type of immunity. New experiments have found white blood cells called T cells appear to work just as well against Covid variants as they do the original virus. 

And they work just as well when produced by either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, which were both tested in the study. 

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego said: ‘The data presented here suggests that T cell responses are largely unaffected by the variants.’

They said the T cells, which tag onto the coronavirus and help to destroy it, might not completely stop infection but should prevent people getting seriously ill. This would mean that anyone who has already had Covid or a vaccine would get less sick the next time they were infected with the virus.

The researchers tested what happened when they mixed the coronavirus with the blood of people who had been vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Specifically they measured two types of T cell in the blood, called CD4 and CD8.

CD4 are ‘helper’ cells which identify a viral infection and spark the rest of the immune system into action, and CD8 are ‘cytotoxic’ and they can destroy infected cells in the body.

These work alongside antibodies, which target the virus itself and wreck it directly.

They found that the T cells worked just as well when they were exposed to the old Wuhan variant of the virus, the Kent variant, the Brazilian variant or the South African one.

Previous studies found antibodies worked less well against the mutated strains, worrying scientists, but this gives reassurance that vaccines will still work in other ways.

He added: ‘I’m really, really delighted that the team have done this work. They’ve worked absolutely flat out since the six cases were first identified on Friday, and found the six positive cases, even though the form wasn’t filled in quite right.’

The Health Secretary had told the House of Commons on Tuesday the search was narrowed to 379 homes in the South East of England.

Dr Susan Hopkins explained the process and said three cases had been found in England on Wednesday, February 26, and two of them were easily identified.

But one of them ‘had attempted to register his test online but had failed to do so effectively,’ she said.

A team of 40 people were deployed to work backwards from the lab that received the test to work out where it had come from, via a testing hub and a DHL courier.

It was first narrowed down to two regions and 10,000 homes, calculated by looking at where other tests with very similar barcodes had been done.

This could then be narrowed to 379 homes and then 27 people, who were chased relentlessly by phone, text and email, she said.

The man then phoned 119, the NHS Test and Trace helpline, at 3pm on Wednesday to confirm he had sent the test, proving it with the barcode label he had kept.

Scientists and government advisers were worried about the variant cases because they were the first to be confirmed in Britain.

The mutations on the Brazilian strain of the virus have been found in studies to make immunity from vaccines or previous infections to be weaker than normal.

This threatens to make the jabs less effective is the variant becomes widespread, although it isn’t expected to because of the lockdown.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said it was unlikely the person was still infectious.

He told MailOnline: ‘Even if it was an old person, the chances are they didn’t get particularly ill and resolved the infection… The chances are that person no longer has the virus.’

Out of the six total cases in the UK three were Scottish residents who flew to Aberdeen from Brazil via Paris and London, who all tested positive while self-isolating.

Other passengers who were on the same flight to Aberdeen in Scotland are now being traced.

The other two cases in England were from the same household in South Gloucestershire, one of whom returned from Brazil on February 10.

Two other people in the same house also tested positive but are not currently included in the UK case total of six, while tests on their type of coronavirus continue.

Officials are searching for passengers who were on the Swiss Air flight LX318 from Sao Paulo to Heathrow, via Zurich, which landed on February 10.  

Surge testing is being done in the Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke areas of South Gloucestershire to capture any potential spread in cases. 

The Brazilian and South African variants of the coronavirus are the two concerning officials in the UK because they might make vaccines less effective or increase the risk of reinfection.

The main mutations they carry are all on the virus’s external spike protein, which it uses to latch onto the body, and are named N501Y and E484K, and they both have similar but slightly different mutations on the K417 gene.

There have so far been 16 cases of the new ‘Variant Under Investigation’, temporarily named B1.1.318

N501Y is also found in the Kent variant, and is what makes all three versions of the virus spread faster than older strains, which is why they are now taking over.

E484K and the K417 mutations, found on the Brazil and South Africa strains but not the English one, makes the virus less susceptible to immune cells made in response to older versions of the virus or to vaccines.

This means people are more likely to get infected even if they have immunity from having Covid or from a vaccine.

But the mutations are likely to only reduce some of the vaccines’ effectiveness against mild illness, while they should still prevent severe illness and death.

Meanwhile another new coronavirus variant has been detected in the UK which has a mutation that may help it escape immunity.

There have so far been 16 cases of the new ‘Variant Under Investigation’, temporarily named B1.1.318, Public Health England revealed.

The new variant was first detected on February 15 through genomic sequencing and officials began monitoring its spread on February 24.

It has the E484K mutation on its spike protein which is also found in the Brazilian and South African variants. Those two strains are also circulating in the UK.

Public Health England data show that coronavirus positive test rates fell in all but two areas of the country in the week ending February 28 – Hull in Yorkshire and Wokingham in Berkshire (shown in yellow)

The alteration changes the way the virus looks to the immune system, helping it to dodge antibodies.

But antibodies are just one part of what gives Covid survivors and vaccinated patients protection against reinfection.

White blood cells play a crucial role in fighting off the virus and scientists say they are ‘not substantially affected’ by current mutated variants.

OXFORD VACCINE WORKS AGAINST BRAZIL VARIANT, SCIENTISTS CLAIM 

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to work against the P1 Brazilian coronavirus variant in lab studies.

A source told Reuters that a study by Oxford University suggested that the vaccine would work well enough as it is at preventing illness from the mutated strain.  

The exact efficacy of the vaccine against the variant wasn’t revealed, but a study is expected to be published later this month.

Scientists had been concerned about the effectiveness of the jab because it appears to work less well against the South African strain, which has very similar mutations.

It means the current crop of vaccines should still be highly effective against strains with the E484K mutation.

PHE said it does not know if it spawned in the UK or was imported from another country.

The agency now has four variants ‘under investigation’ and four more which it describes as ‘variants of concern’.

They are the current dominant Kent strain, two imported from Brazil, the South African variant and one which is thought to have originated in Nigeria, as well as two others which cropped up in Bristol and Liverpool.

The new strain announced on Thursday does not feature the N501Y mutation that makes the virus spread more quickly.

Scienitsts have said previously that variants without this key change are unlikely to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant anytime soon because they won’t have an ‘evolutionary edge’ over it.

This N501Y mutation, which is found on the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants, means it can bind to cells more easily and is more transmissible.

The lead researcher behind Oxford University’s coronavirus jab warned earlier this week against becoming ‘obsessed’ with new variants, despite new versions cropping up around the globe every week.

He said his team were confident they their vaccine would be highly effective against all emerging strains and in the unlikely event one made it significantly weaker, the jab can easily be modified in a matter of weeks.

Drug chiefs in the UK, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Singapore have confirmed that booster jabs to tackle mutated coronavirus variants will be fast-tracked and won’t need to go through massive clinical trials.

Big vaccine-makers are already working on new versions of their Covid vaccines to tackle the South Africa and Brazil variants, which studies suggest may make the current jabs less effective than they were against earlier strains of the virus.

The first time around, the vaccines had to be trialled on tens of thousands of people for around six months and studies are still ongoing.

But for the boosters the same process won’t have to be followed as long as the firms are only making minor tweaks to their original vaccines.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT? 

Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1

Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2. 

Why should we care? The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.

This means it spreads faster and has the potential to become dominant in some areas.  

What do the mutations do?

The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people’s bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious. 

Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor. 

Even if the virus doesn’t appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.

Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant. 

E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover. 

It has a third, less well-studied mutation called K417T, and the ramifications of this are still being researched but it also appears to give it an advantage against the immune system.

Do our vaccines work against it?

There are concerns that vaccines might be less effective against the Brazilian strain, with trials of the Johnson & Johnson jab finding it was slightly less effective in Latin America at preventing mild or moderate cases. 

However, the trials found it still prevented hospitalisations and deaths.

No studies have tested the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against the P1 variant, while Moderna and Pfizer say their mRNA coronavirus vaccines should work against variants with the E484K mutation, with early results showing that these vaccines are only slightly less effective against the P1 variant.   

Proof of effectiveness and safety will be transferable from the earlier studies, UK regulator MHRA said, although small studies for updated safety information will be required. 

This process will be based on a system that allows flu vaccines to be easily updated each year so they can adapt to the different strains that circulate each season. 

‘Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety,’ said Christian Schneider, chief scientific officer at the MHRA.

‘Should any modifications to authorised Covid-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that.

‘The public should be confident that no vaccine would be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met.’

During a visit to Glasgow Lighthouse Lab, Mr Hancock said: ‘We will have a fast-track approach to safely approving future vaccines that work against a variant of Covid.

‘The vaccine programme has clearly been a huge UK success story, and part of the reason that we have been able to develop the vaccines so far so quickly is because of the MHRA’s rigorous yet flexible approach, which has been based entirely on looking as quickly as possible at the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

‘I’m delighted that they’re taking that same principled approach to the approval process for vaccines that may work against variants.’

The MHRA said the reason mass clinical trials are not necessary is that scientists can test how well a vaccine works on blood samples in a lab.

And because earlier versions of the vaccines have already gone through the entire process, they can see how this lab effectiveness translates to the real world.

Real-world data also proves that the vaccines the boosters are based on are safe and that they protect against coronavirus.

Any updates to vaccines should use almost exactly the same technology based on a slightly different version of the virus, to incorporate changes caused by mutations in the new variants.

All the current vaccines are based on the original coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan in 2019.

But the virus has mutated since then and lab studies suggest one big change – named E484K – has changed the virus in a way that helps it to evade immune cells that are only used to the older strains of the virus. 

This makes reinfection more likely among people who have already had Covid, and makes vaccines slightly less effective.

AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, the makers of the three vaccines the MHRA has approved for use so far, have all said they are aiming to modify their jabs to cope with variants this year.

AstraZeneca, the maker of the Oxford vaccine, said it hopes its new vaccine will be ready by autumn.

MHRA chief executive Dr June Raine said there is no evidence that current vaccines are lacking effectiveness against known coronavirus variants.

She said: ‘Since December last year we have all been concerned about the appearance of variants – Kent, South Africa, more recently Brazil – and therefore we’re well-prepared to look at, when it’s needed, updates to ensure the vaccines being used in citizens are fully effective.

‘Our goal is to ensure the vaccine modifications in future that respond to the new variants can be available in the shortest possible time but without compromising in any way on safety, on quality and on effectiveness.

‘What I would emphasise at the outset is that we don’t have evidence at the moment that the vaccines in use in the UK are significantly lacking in effectiveness but we are now well-prepared.’

Mr Hancock said last night two in five adults have now been vaccinated and deaths are falling ‘faster and faster’..

Some 21.3million people have received their first dose, and the historic rollout means deaths have plummeted by 41 per cent in a week.

The Health Secretary said: ‘You can really see the effects of the vaccine in the number of deaths.

‘That link from cases to hospitalisations and then deaths that had been unbreakable before the vaccine is now breaking.

‘The vaccine is protecting the NHS and saving lives, right across the country.’

The positive figures last night led to fresh speculation about the lifting of the lockdown, and whether the roadmap could be accelerated.

Ministers have repeatedly insisted the timetable will not be sped up, but with each week of positive data the pressure is increasing for a swifter end to the restrictions.

More than one million people have now received both doses of Covid-19 vaccine, meaning 2 per cent of UK adults are fully vaccinated.

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