Public Health England (PHE) has confirmed that the two variants share the same distinct genetic mutations as the Indian coronavirus strain, known B.1.617.
Will the variants affect Covid vaccines?
The two variants have been designated as “variants under investigation” (VUI) by PHE, rather than “variants of concern” (VOC).
The Covid strains first identified in Kent, Manaus (Brazil) and South Africa have all been classed as VOCs.
PHE said it has identified 202 cases of one of the variants and five cases of the other that are “geographically dispersed in England”.
It said there is currently no evidence to suggest that these variants cause more severe disease, or make the current vaccines any less effective.
Monitoring of the variants has been ongoing since early April and PHE has increased lab testing “to better understand the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus”.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the India variant features two “escape mutations” – E484Q and L452R – which “are causing people to be concerned”.
He said: “There’s laboratory evidence that both of these are escape mutations.
“Basically, applying what we know about other human coronaviruses would suggest that this is going to be even less controlled by vaccines.
“But we don’t know that for certain at the moment.”
The E484K mutation is reported to result in weaker neutralisation by antibodies in lab experiments, but the E484Q mutation is different and still subject to investigation.
Viruses by their nature mutate often, with more than 18,000 mutations discovered over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the overwhelming majority of which have no effect on the behaviour of the virus.
How many cases of the variant are there?
According to the latest update from PHE, 172 cases of the B.1.617 variant have been found in England, with 13 in Scotland and eight in Wales.
There are a total of 226,635 cases of the Kent variant, known as B.1.1.7, in the UK, PHE figures show.
There are four variants of concern and nine variants under investigation which have been identified in the UK.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday (28 April), Health Secretary Matt Hancock said concern around the impact new variants could have on the UK vaccine programme was behind the policy decisions on tight border controls.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, added that it was difficult to assess how new coronavirus variants would impact vaccines being rolled out in the UK, but he hoped the inoculations would continue to protect against severe illness.
The UK government is continuing to “work closely” with its Indian counterparts to “determine what further help they may need”, as a devastating surge of new infections continues to tear through the country.
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