A new Covid-19 variant first detected in India could be a cause for concern, as 77 cases have been reported in the UK.
Public Health England (PHE) have confirmed 73 cases of the B.1.617 variant in England, while four cases have also been discovered in Scotland.
The figures come from the latest update of PHE’s surveillance of the distribution of different coronavirus variants across the UK, based on data up to 7 April.
Health officials have designated the Indian variant as a “variant under investigation” (VUI), rather than a “variant of concern” (VOC), such as the Brazil or South African variants.
PHE said there is currently no evidence to suggest that the new Indian variant is more serious than previous mutations, nor is there current evidence which indicates vaccines are less likely to work against it.
It is understood that the cases detected in England are dispersed across different parts of the country and many are linked to international travel, but investigations are still ongoing.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the 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 vaccine.
“But we don’t know that for certain at the moment.”
According to PHE, the variant “includes a number of mutations including E484Q, L452R, and P681R”.
It said “all appropriate public health interventions will be undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing” after its detection, with PHE and international partners monitoring the situation “closely”.
Soaring Covid rates
In India, Covid-19 rates are soaring, with more than 13.9 million confirmed cases and 172,000 deaths.
The country is not currently on the government’s “red list” for travel, which sees people who have been in those countries in the previous 10 days refused entry to the UK.
The Prime Minister has scaled down a planned trip to India due to its worsening Covid situation.
Boris Johnson was due to spend four days in the country at the end of the month but, following talks with Narendra Modi’s administration, the “bulk” of the meetings could be fitted into one day.
Prof Hunter said it is “not surprising” that the variant has come from India.
He explained: “If you think about where the main variants have arisen – South Africa, the UK, California, Brazil, and now India – all of these are countries that have really struggled to keep case numbers down.
“So it’s not surprising. India has got a huge pandemic, and therefore that’s where you’re going to be getting the variant.”
“The big, big anxiety with this one is that it seems – and again this is still a little bit speculative because it hasn’t been confirmed – but… there are two mutations here that are causing people to be concerned.”
PHE said that mutations at the 484 spike protein have been associated with the Manaus and South African variants.
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.
PHE’s latest findings mean there are now seven VUIs and four VOCs being tracked by scientists in the UK.