NEW coronavirus variants are emerging that are more infectious than the original strain that started the pandemic a year ago.
It’s common that viruses mutate as they attempt to evade vaccines and survive amongst the population.
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Last night it was revealed that the government would be deploying surge testing in Lambeth, London, after cases of the South African variant were detected in the area.
The Government’s emergency virus group Nervtag also yesterdaty confirmed a new variant detected in Bristol last week is now a “variant of concern”.
And a variant found in Liverpool is “under investigation”.
But what are the main strains in circulation and how do they differ from one another?
The original strain
Covid-19, or 2019-nCoV as it was initially named, first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 by scientists as it is a sister to severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus, or SARS.
After the first few cases in China, it quickly spread around the globe before the World Health Organisation declared it a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Symptoms: The NHS states that the three main symptoms of the original strain of Covid-19 are a new persistent cough, a high temperature and a loss of taste and smell (anosmia).
Anosmia was added in May 2020 after a surge in patients testing positive displayed the symptom.
Experts have also previously revealed that children could experience different symptoms to adults.
Experts at the ZOE Symptom Tracker App have previously said that children are most like to have fatigue, headache, fever, sore throat and loss of appetite.
Following a worrying spike in Covid cases in the UK towards the end of last year, scientists began sequencing the virus.
They discovered it was a novel variant and traced it back to first emerging in Kent, south east England, in late September.
Now more commonly known as the UK variant, you might also hear it referred to as the B.1.1.7 variant or VUI 202012/01, which stands for the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020.
Scientists quickly found it to spread more easily and faster than other variants, forcing the Prime Minister to put the country into national lockdown on January 5.
Experts found that the variant could be up to 50 times more infectious than the previous strain.
Symptoms: People suffering with the Kent mutation are more likely to get a cough, sore throat, tiredness and muscle pain, according to experts.
The Office for National Statistics found the largest change in symptoms between the original virus and the UK variant is people are much less likely to report high temperatures.
The study found no real difference in reports of shortness of breath or headaches from patients with either the novel strain or the mutation.
South African strain
In South Africa, another variant called B.1.351 emerged independently of B.1.1.7, although it does share some mutations.
It has been found to spread about 60-70 per cent faster than the original strain.
This is because it has a mutation, known as E484K, which can bind to human cells quickly and infect them more easily.
Originally detected in early October 2020, it was first announced by the South African government on December 18.
In the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the new and “highly concerning” strain had entered Britain during a press briefing on December 23.
It was last night revealed that cases of the strain had been detected in Lambeth, London and that several postcodes would need to be tested.
In order to contain the strain all flights from South Africa were stopped and anyone who had visited South Africa in the past two weeks, or been in contact with someone who has, had to quarantine immediately.
Until this week, all cases detected in the UK so far were believed to be linked to foreign travel.
Oxford scientists revealed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will now have to be tweaked in order to be effective against the new variant.
Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi assured Brits that the Oxford jab would still prevent deaths – despite a study suggesting it was less effective against mild disease caused by the strain.
“Surge” testing is currently underway in twelve areas of the UK where the variant has been detected in a bid to contain the spread.
The study – conducted by South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford University – found that the jab “provides minimal protection” against moderate Covid-19 caused by the variant.
Symptoms: It is not yet known if the South African strain has any different symptoms than the three standards ones highlighted by health officials.
There are two new Covid strains to emerge from Brazil – one experts are more worried about than the other.
The first, a variant called P.1, emerged in early January after being detected in travellers during routine screening at an airport in Japan.
Experts say that it is a descendant of lineage B.1.1.28 and contains a unique constellation of lineage defining mutations including E484K.
It also contains the N501Y mutation, which is a feature of the UK strain and has been linked to increased infectivity and virulence in studies.
Meanwhile, the E484K mutation is thought to be associated with evading neutralising antibodies produced by the body against the virus.
This variant isn’t believed to have been detected in the UK.
The second variant is a different descendant of the same lineage – B.1.1.28, but doesn’t contain a constellation of mutations.
It does differ from its ancestral lineage in that it carries the mutation E484K.
P.2 has been reported to be spreading in the state of Rio de Janeiro and is associated with two independent reinfection cases in Brazil.
It does not contain the other important mutations carried by lineage P.1.
The COG-UK confirmed that lineage P.2 has recently been detected in the UK in a handful of cases.
Symptoms: It’s not yet known whether symptoms of the Brazil variants are any different to the key signs listed by health officials.
Health experts revealed last week that the UK strain has acquired a mutation similar to the South African variant.
Public Health England detected 11 cases in Bristol where the Kent variant has mutated to “escape” immune response.
Gene sequencing has shown that the E484K mutation has occurred spontaneously, according to PHE.
Until this point the mutation had only been associated with the South African and Brazil variants.
Experts say the “worrying development” means vaccination and natural immunity will prove less effective against these infections if they are allowed to spread.
Lab studies have shown that the E484K mutation means antibodies are less able to bind to a part of the virus known as the spike protein, in order to stop it from unlocking human cells to gain entry.
Doorstep testing is underway in Bristol where the cases were first identified.
The Government’s emergency virus group Nervtag, last night officially named the Bristol variant – with 14 cases there and four in Manchester – a “variant of concern”.
This variant has developed directly from the Kent strain and now includes a mutation called E484K, which allows the virus to evade vaccines more easily.
Symptoms: It’s unclear whether or not symptoms differ from the three main ones outlined by the NHS.
Another separate mutation of the original Covid variant appears to have emerged in the North East of England.
A cluster of 32 cases in Liverpool have been detected with the E484K mutation.
However it relates to the original strain of coronavirus that has been around since the start of the pandemic, and not the Kent variant.
Regional PHE officials said the mutation detected in Liverpool was part of cases among staff at Liverpool Women’s Hospital last month.
A cluster of an initial five cases was detected on January 10 among some staff who had attended an event outside the hospital, believed to be a funeral.
Extra surging testing will be carried out in the area to stop it spreading, officials said.
Nervtag last night also branded a variant which caused 55 cases in Liverpool a “variant under investigation”.
This variant is a version of the original Covid virus, which has the E484K mutation that lets it escape vaccines more easily.
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In total Public Health England has identified 76 cases of these two new variants.
Symptoms: It’s not year clear if these symptoms differ from those commonly associated with Covid-19.
However a million people in the North West of England were last week told to get a test if they had a runny nose.
People across Liverpool and Lancashire were urged to get a test if they had experienced a runny nose, a head ache, or were just “feeling under the weather”.