Investigations are ongoing in Bristol into a new strain of coronavirus in the UK that appears to combine two mutations which have been worrying scientists.
Eleven cases in the Bristol area have been identified as being the variant that initially arose in Kent – but which has also now picked up a second concerning mutation.
It raises the concern that the more rapid spreading Kent variant, known scientifically as B.1.1.7, will now also become more resistant to coronavirus vaccinations.
The new mutation is called the E484K mutation, which has also been seen in the variants spreading in South African and Brazil, and is thought to make the current vaccines less effective – although it does not stop them working entirely.
According to Public Health England, the new double mutation has been detected in at least 11 samples in the Bristol area.
Bristol City Council said plans are now under way to ‘ramp up’ testing across the area, but it has not been conformed if this means door-to-door swabs,
A cluster of 32 cases of the original strain of the virus in Liverpool have the same E484K mutation
The South African variant – which also shows the mutation – is under investigation in at least eight postcode areas of England where cases not linked to travel have been found.
Increased testing is being considered in Wales as part of efforts to tackle the South African coronavirus variant, which has now been found in 13 cases – including three that aren’t linked to international travel. See more on that here.
Officials said there were nine confirmed cases of the more infectious version of Covid-19 in Wales, with another four probable cases.
What is known about Bristol’s new mutation?
Public Health England said the 11 cases in Bristol were the Kent variant with the E484K mutation.
Some 32 cases in Liverpool are the original pandemic strain of coronavirus but with the E484K mutation.
It is already known that the Kent variant is up to 70 per cent more infectious.
And early evidence suggests the variant may be more deadly. However, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, described the data as “not yet strong”.
In Wales, Chief Scientific Adviser Rob Orford said the situation was being monitored “very carefully in Wales”.
“We’re very fortunate in Wales to have a very good system in place where we sequence many of the positive Covid test that we that we have back,” he told the BBC.
He said numbers of the UK Kent variant – identified before Christmas – had reduced during lockdown.
Will the vaccine still be effective?
There is no definitive word on this at present but experts have suggested that vaccines will offer protection against other variants that have been detected. It may be, however, that the immune response they produce is not as strong.
Novavax recently announced its vaccine was 89% effective in its Phase 3 UK trial, but only appeared 60% effective in a separate Phase 2b study conducted in South Africa.
Similarly, in Johnson & Johnson’s Phase 3 trial, efficacy differed by country: 72% in the US versus 57% in South Africa. In both trials, 90 to 95% of cases in South Africa were linked to the B.1.351 variant, which contains the E484K mutation.
Dr Julian Tang, a virus expert at the University of Leicester, described the finding as “a worrying development, though not entirely unexpected”.
During a Downing Street press conference yesterday, Dr Susan Hopkins from Public Health England said existing vaccines may offer less protection but they should still offer a good level of immunity.
Wales Health Minister Vaughan Gething said the vaccines would still offer “a good level of protection”.
In a virtual session of the Senedd on Tuesday, Mr Gething said there are concerns that both the South African variant and a recent mutated form of the Kent variant, will have a “less effective response” for vaccines.
“That does not mean that vaccines won’t be effective at all; they will still offer a good level of protection and it reinforces the need to continue going with real pace in our vaccination programme,” he said.
Mr Gething said he was confident the Welsh Government had the ability to identify such cases through testing.
Cases in your area by postcode:
What will happen in now?
Work is being done internationally to adjust the vaccines.
One positive finding is that the variants are mutating in a similar way rather than diverging from each other.
Prof Ravi Gupta from the University of Cambridge said: “This gives us a sign that it has certain favoured routes – and we can work to block those off with a vaccine.”
In Bristol and other parts of England, the Government has already launched door-to-door testing in eight postcodes where the South African strain has been detected.
In Wales, work is being done to establish how the three people with the South African variant who had not travelled abroad had contracted it.
Christina Gray, Director of Public Health for Bristol, said: “Early detection of this mutated form of the virus that first appeared in Kent means we can respond swiftly to ramp up testing in the area to better understand the local situation.
“We’re already working with colleagues in health agencies to identify the additional testing we need and how best to deliver this effectively. When plans are ready it will be vital that everyone who is asked to take a test does so promptly.”
Will there be more testing in Wales?
The Welsh Government said it was looking at whether “enhanced measures” are needed.
Public Health Wales nine South African variant cases – and one probable case – in Wales were linked to travel, while investigations were continuing for the remaining three.
The Welsh Conservatives called for the government to consider a “door-to-door testing blitz”, while Plaid Cymru said the issue highlighted the importance of an effective test, trace and isolate system.
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk