Scientists worried: UK coronavirus combined with South African variant
Two leading scientists in the UK warned Wednesday that the variant of the virus first identified in Kent has acquired the same E484K mutation on its spike protein that makes the South Africa variant so worrying for experts.
Public health authorities are keeping two emerging UK variants under close watch. The first of these two home-grown variants has mostly been found in Bristol and the South West, where experts have confirmed 15 cases, with a further six in other parts of England. The second variant is localized in Liverpool and the North West, with a cluster of 42 cases confirmed so far.
Sharon Peacock, executive director and chair of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), told POLITICO in an interview that this is of “great concern” because such mutation has been associated with immunity to vaccines and re-infection in South Africa.
“Our home-grown variant is developing that mutation on numerous occasions probably through a process of natural selection,” she said. “If the virus gets advantages from a particular mutation, then that’s likely to persist in the population and expand. That is becoming of great concern in the country.”
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said “it is not surprising” that the Kent variant has evolved in this way and that it will happen elsewhere as well.
“In getting that variant it does make it slightly more likely to look different to the immune system so we need to watch out for it,” Vallance said. “We need to keep on top and need to keep testing the vaccine effects in that situation.”
Peacock said the UK government’s approach to border controls, which will become stricter from Monday, is “good overall” because testing people after arrival, as well as genome sequencing of positive cases, will allow the U.K. to understand how the virus might be mutating in other parts of the world.
But she warned stringent border controls will not offer full protection to the British population because “there’s a probability that variants will arise in the UK unrelated to border control,” as is happening in Bristol. ■