Another coronavirus variant with a potentially worrying set of mutations has been detected in the UK and should be targeted in surge testing, experts have said. The Guardian reports that the variant, known as B.126.96.36.199, is the subject of a report by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who say it has been detected through genome sequencing in 10 countries including Denmark, the US and Australia, with 32 cases found in the UK so far. The earliest sequences were dated to December and cropped up in the UK and Nigeria.
The team say the variant has similarities in its genome to the Kent variant, B.1.1.7, and it contains a number of mutations that have worried researchers, including the E.4.8.4.K mutation to the spike protein – a protein found on the outside of the virus that plays an important role in helping the virus to enter cells.
This E.4.8.4.K mutation is present in variants that emerged in South African and Brazil and is thought make the virus better able to evade neutralising antibodies produced by the body.
Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said that while it was unclear what effect many of the mutations may have on the ability of the coronavirus to establish an infection, or on the severity of disease, the presence of the E.4.8.4.K mutation was known in the South Africa variant to confer a degree of resistance to some vaccines. “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,” he said.
Professor Jonathan Stoye, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute said the discovery that several variants of concern share the same mutations means tweaks to the current COVID vaccines would be expected to offer protection against multiple new variants.
“This (E.4.8.4.K) change seems to be the key change at the moment to allow escape, so that’s the one you put into the tweaked vaccine,” said Stoye.
Meanwhile, scientists had already determined that the variant of the novel coronavirus first detected in the fall in the UK – known as B.1.1.7. because of its molecular makeup – was probably 30% to 70% more transmissible than the typical version of the virus causing COVID-19. The Washington Post reports that they also knew, based on preliminary data, that the variant appeared to be relatively more deadly for the growing number of people catching it.
Now, the report says, UK scientists say the variant is probably 30% to 70% more deadly, based on a follow-up study released by the government that assessed a larger sample size of COVID-19 patients and also found a higher rate of hospitalisation. The variant is “associated with an increased risk of hospitalisation and death compared to infection with” other forms of the virus, according to the study, which drew from multiple databases across the country.
The Washington Post reports that there are still many unknowns: The data available to study has noteworthy gaps among critical demographics, such as nursing homes, and provides an incomplete tally of infections, a problem that has persisted throughout the pandemic. But it does underscore how – even with efforts to fast-track fighting the virus – scientific data takes time to gather and access, despite the pressing need for information.
So far, the makers of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines have said their products remain effective against the latest forms of the virus. Studies of these variants and the various vaccines under development or emergency use are ongoing.
Studies have already shown the UK strain to be more transmissible and Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last month that it could also be "associated with a higher degree of mortality." Business Insider reports that the assessment confirmed that concern, but the scientists also said there would need to be more extensive studies conducted on deaths.
Meanwhile, the more contagious variant has been circulating throughout the world and the US.
The report says it is not yet clear why the UK variant may have a higher mortality rate. Scientists have said one possible reason is that people who become infected with it could have a higher viral load, or more of the virus in their bodies, which is linked to more severe COVID-19, Business Insider reported.
Dr Kevin Kavanagh a member of Infection Control Today’s editorial advisory board said in an Infection Control Today report that "initial reports that the UK variant is not more lethal than our current strain and that its increase in transmissibility was possibly due to an increase in viral production by the patient did not make sense. Since, increased viral load should produce a more severe disease in the patient. I was thus hoping for another mechanism, but it now looks like this strain may be more lethal after all and to make matters worse, it may have an increased propensity to infect children and young adults."
“In this model, B.1.1.7 prevalence is initially low, yet because it is more transmissible than are current variants, it exhibits rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March,” the study states. “Whether transmission of current variants is increasing (initial Rt = 1.1) or slowly decreasing (initial Rt = 0.9) in January, B.1.1.7 drives a substantial change in the transmission trajectory and a new phase of exponential growth. With vaccination that protects against infection, the early epidemic trajectories do not change and B.1.1.7 spread still occurs."
The report says even with the advent of vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and testing many COVID-19 discussions circle back to the low-tech tools of infection prevention – hand hygiene, social distancing, wearing a mask—and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's(CDC’s) warning about B.1.1.7 is no exception.
A study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report said that “the increased transmissibility of this variant requires an even more rigorous combined implementation of vaccination and mitigation measures (distancing, masking, and hand hygiene) to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. These measures will be more effective if they are instituted sooner rather than later to slow the initial spread of the B.1.1.7 variant.”
Full report in The Guardian (Open access)
University of Edinburgh report
Full report in The Washington Post (Restricted access)
UK government follow-up study
Full Business Insider report (Open access)
Full Infection Control Today report (Open access)
CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report