Controls are being stepped up in parts of the UK hit by new strains of Covid-19, as scientists warned Britain risks becoming a “melting pot” for mutations believed to strengthen the virus’s resistance to vaccines.
The cases in Liverpool and the Bristol area were made public as door-to-door testing began in eight other postcode areas to stem the spread of the South African coronavirus variant.
Eleven cases in and around Bristol have been identified as the variant that originally emerged in Kent, with the addition of the E484K mutation found in the South African strain. And a cluster of 32 cases in Liverpool showed the same mutation but relate to the original strain of coronavirus which arrived in the UK around a year ago.
Virologist Julian Tang, of the University of Leicester, said E484K was thought to be “the main mutation impacting on vaccine efficacy”, adding that its emergence in different strains of the disease was “worrying”. Failure to control the circulation of the virus could lead to the UK becoming a “melting pot” for new mutations, he warned.
Health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that the government was in touch with pharmaceutical companies to discuss whether tweaks were needed to vaccines to make them more effective against the new strains.
“We’re working with pharmaceutical companies and with the scientists to understand both whether the such modifications are needed, where they are needed, and how they can be brought to use on the front line as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.
“This is obviously a very important consideration given the new variants that we’ve seen.”
Mr Hancock told MPs that he was confident that any modified jabs needed on a large scale would be available “more quickly than the original vaccines”.
Public Health England said it was monitoring the situation “closely”. A spokesperson said: “All necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing and control measures.”
The development came as:
– Mr Hancock confirmed that 110 of the 10,307 care homes in England have not yet been offered vaccines, because outbreaks within the homes prevent inoculations.
– A new study showed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine offers 76 per cent protection up to 12 weeks after a single dose and may reduce transmission by 67 per cent.
– Interim trial results suggested Russia’s Covid vaccine is 91.6% effective against symptomatic coronavirus.
– Latest figures showed 350,348 first jabs over 24 hours in the UK, bringing the national total to 9,646,715, with an additional 496,796 second doses administered.
The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
However, public health experts believe current vaccines will still be effective at a lower level against strains with the mutation and are good at preventing severe disease.
Regional PHE officials said the mutation was detected last month among staff at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, with an initial cluster of five detected on 10 January among individuals who attended an event outside the hospital, believed to be a funeral.
Bristol’s director of public health said 11 cases of the mutated Kent variant had been identified in the city and further investigations were under way to understand if this form of the virus had spread further in the area.
Mr Hancock told MPs that the aim of community testing for the South African variant – currently targeting around 80,000 people in eight postcode areas – is to “stop its spread altogether”.
But he was unable to name a date for the introduction of mandatory quarantine hotels for travellers arriving from South Africa and other countries linked to concerning new strains.
“As with the variant first identified here in the UK, there is currently no evidence to suggest it is any more severe but we have to come down on it hard,” said the health secretary.
“Our mission must be to stop its spread altogether and break those chains of transmission.”
Clinical trials for two coronavirus vaccines – Novavax and Johnson & Johnson – have shown the jabs offer some protection against variants with the E484K mutation.
However, they are less effective than against the variant that has been around since the start of the pandemic.
Laboratory studies also suggest vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech could work against variants, while variant checks against the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine are ongoing.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, warned that it would not be possible to completely prevent the arrival of new variants without a total shutdown of borders.
“New strains will emerge and they’ll emerge in many different countries in the world at different times, and you won’t notice that they are spreading until such time as they are quite widespread,” he told Sky News.
“Yes, you can think about completely shutting the borders or having quarantine, [but] what’s the endgame in that? Is that something that you’re going to do forever? We need some sort of sustainable strategy, and I think that’s very difficult for politicians to think about.”