Scientists fear COVID-19 UK variant has mutated again

The highly transmissible and possibly deadlier variant of COVID-19 detected in southern England at the end of last year is showing signs of further mutation, UK scientists warned on Tuesday.

Tests conducted on samples of the Kent variant, named after the region in England where it was first detected, show a mutation, called ‘E484K’, already detected in the South Africa and Brazil variants.

There are fears that this mutation could evade the immune system and that the vaccines currently being administered may prove less effective against these further mutating variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The findings form part of yet-to-be peer-reviewed results of research at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID), University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) COVID-19 BioResource.

“Of particular concern, though, is the emergence of the E484K mutation, which so far has only been seen in a relatively small number of individuals. Our work suggests the vaccine is likely to be less effective when dealing with this (E484K) mutation”, said Professor Ravi Gupta, the lead researcher at the CITIID.

He said that the variant is expected to continue to acquire mutations seen in the other variants of concern.

“So we need to plan for the next generation of vaccines to have modifications to account for new variants. We also need to scale up vaccines as fast and as broadly as possible to get transmission down globally”, he said.

The data, which relates to a small sample of patients, also suggests that a significant proportion of over-80 olds may not be sufficiently protected against infection until they have received their second dose of the vaccine.

“Our data suggest that a significant proportion of people aged over 80 may not have developed protective neutralising antibodies against infection three weeks after their first dose of the vaccine. But it’s reassuring to see that after two doses, serum from every individual was able to neutralise the virus”, said Dr Dami Collier, the main co-investigator on the studies.

The scientists used blood samples from 26 individuals who had received their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine three weeks previously, to extract serum, which contains antibodies raised in response to the vaccine. The age range of the volunteers was 29 to 89 years.

The findings come as the UK is conducting urgent door-to-door surge testing in south-east England to try and trace every case of the South African variant of COVID-19, which was detected in two people within the community with no travel history connecting them to South Africa.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he wanted to “come down hard” on the variant by “finding every case”.

According to Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker, over 106,774 people have died and more than 3.8 million people have contracted the disease in the UK.

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