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Mutated Kent Covid variant must be taken seriously, warns UK scientist

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/02/2021 Sarah Boseley
a group of people sitting at a desk: Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

The Kent variant of the coronavirus with a key mutation that enables the South African variant to escape some of the vaccines used against it must be taken very seriously in the UK, according to a leading microbiologist.

Prof Ravi Gupta of the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases, who is a member of the government’s scientific advisory body Nervtag, warned that the mutated variant, at the moment causing just 21 known cases, should be treated with as much concern as the South African variant.

The Kent variant B117, which spreads twice as fast as the original coronavirus, is now dominant in the UK and is present in many countries around the world. But Public Health England has identified 21 cases of B117 that also have the E484K mutation: 14 in the Bristol region, four in Greater Manchester and three elsewhere. E484K is the change to the spike protein in South Africa that scientists believe is chiefly responsible for vaccines triggering a lower antibody response to infection.

a group of people sitting at a desk: Surge testing for the Covid-19 mutation in Manchester on Tuesday. Gupta said the key thing was for people to get vaccinated, as vaccines would still protect against severe illness. © Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images Surge testing for the Covid-19 mutation in Manchester on Tuesday. Gupta said the key thing was for people to get vaccinated, as vaccines would still protect against severe illness.

Nervtag (new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group), which is part of the UK Sage committee of scientists, has designated this a “variant of concern”.

This key mutation that had now arisen in the UK has been shown to reduce the efficacy of antibodies in many lab studies, said Gupta. So treating it as we would the South African variant itself is sensible, he said.

“Given that we think this one is responsible for a large knock-off of the effects of vaccine efficacy or even immunity, then, I think it’s wise,” he said.

E484K is also found in the Brazilian variant, which it is thought may be infecting people who should be immune because they had previously become ill with the original coronavirus – although the evidence is still anecdotal.

“Given all these factors, I think it should be taken very seriously,” he said.

It had been acquired by a virus – the Kent variant – that transmits faster and spreads faster than the original one. “So you’ve got vaccine escape mutation on top of a fast-spreading virus, so that’s certainly a bit of a danger sign for me,” he said.

But the key thing, he said, is that people should get vaccinated.

“The vaccines are still going to protect people from severe illness,” he said. He worried that people would think vaccination was now pointless. “That’s not what we’re saying. Actually it’s in all of our interests that we get vaccinated. It’s going to slow down the virus and what we need to be doing is slowing it down. That’s the key thing right now.

“If we let variants emerge, amid high transmission rates, that new variant could easily overtake the whole viral population,” he said.

“Whereas if we shut down the borders and we control any more importation and we keep the lockdown going bit longer and suppress the virus, then the chances of the 484 spreading and taking over the normal B117 is obviously diminished.”

Nervtag has also called for further investigation of about 40 cases of the original coronavirus in the Liverpool area, which also have the E484K mutation, but are less transmissible.

Data is expected shortly from Public Health England which may reassure those who have been concerned about the delay in giving the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. The company itself has said it should be given at 21 days, but the government has ruled that there should be a gap of up to 12 weeks in the two doses given of both it and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

According to a leak in the Sun, data collected by the UK’s vaccination programme is likely to show that a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is about 65% protective from Covid by 21 days. It rises to 79-84% after the second dose.

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