Experts have identified a new mutation of coronavirus in the UK which researchers say should be targeted with surge testing.
The mutated version of Covid-19 was identified through genome sequencing in 10 countries, including the USA, Australia and Denmark. It is thought that there are around 32 cases in the UK so far, with the genome said to be similar to the Kent variant.
The new variant is known as B1525 and was identified in a report from researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who have noted a potentially worrying mutation - known as E484K - to the spike protein. This is a protein on the outside of the virus which plays a key role in helping the virus to enter human cells.
The mutation is thought to aid the virus in evading neutralising antibodies, with the E484K mutation present in the variants which emerged out of Brazil and South Africa.
'Mutations are to be expected'
Associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, Dr Simon Clarke, said it wasn't completely clear yet what effect the mutations may have on the ability of the virus to infect someone or how severe that infection might be.
However, it is known that the E484K mutation in the variant of the virus first detected in South Africa did create a degree of resistance to some of the available 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,” Dr Clarke told the Guardian.
He added that efforts should be made to pick up the variant through a boost in testing.
“I think that until we know more about these variants, any variants which carry E484K should be subject to surge testing as it seems to confer resistance to immunity, however that is generated,” he said.
Prof Jonathan Stoye, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, said that mutations are to be expected.
"The minute you start putting selection pressure on this virus, you start selecting particularly for things that give it the ability to escape immune responses, and I think that is what we are seeing here,” he explained.
The good news is that experts believe existing vaccines could be tweaked to target new variants of the virus, given several of the variants share the same E484K mutation to the spike protein.
“This [E484K] 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.
On the new variant, Professor Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England (PHE), said:
“PHE is monitoring data about emerging variants very closely and where necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, such as extra testing and enhanced contact tracing.
“There is currently no evidence that this set of mutations causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility.
“The best way to stop the spread of the virus is to follow the public health advice – wash your hands, wear a face covering and keep your distance from others. While in lockdown, it is important that people stay at home where possible.”