News on Sunday 28 February that Britain’s mammoth vaccination roll-out has now seen over 20 million people receive their first dose was overshadowed by the revelation that the Brazilian variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in the UK – a mutation that has been labelled a “variant of concern”.
Six cases of the Brazilian mutation, which may be more contagious and resistant to vaccines, have so far been identified in the UK; with three being found in Scotland, and the other three traced in England.
Authorities have been unable to trace one of the six identified cases, as the registration card on their test kit was not properly filled out, leaving health officials in a desperate scramble to identify and isolate the affected individual.
With efforts to find the missing individual underway, concerns about the prevalence of the Brazilian variant and the knock-on effect it may have on the easing of restrictions remain.
What is the Brazilian variant?
The Brazilian P1 variant of the coronavirus, which is believed to originate from the city of Manaus in northern Brazil, has raised concerns due to its high transmissibility rate and potential to compromise the effectiveness of existing vaccines.
Early research seems to indicate that, similar to the UK/Kent and South African mutations of the virus, the Brazilian strain may have a higher transmission rate because of changes to its “spike protein”, the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells.
This particular variant could be up to three times more contagious than the original strain, according to Eduardo Pazuello, the Brazilian health minister.
The variant, which was first was identified in people who travelled from Manaus to Japan in January, may have some resistance to the vaccines designed to combat known strains of the virus.
However, early indications seem to confirm that the current portfolio of vaccines will still offer a large amount of protection, albeit at a slightly lower rate of efficiency.
How did it reach the UK?
Though the English and Scottish cases are unlinked, health officials in both nations are keen to act early to prevent any potential spread within the community.
While one of the English cases is yet to be traced, the other two have been traced to the same household in South Gloucestershire, after an infected individual returned home from Brazil on 10 February – a few days before the new hotel quarantine rules came into place.
Speaking on the Gloucestershire cases, minister for Covid vaccine deployment Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News that there is “minimal reason to believe there may be further spread because they have been isolating correctly, but we [local health authorities] will be doing asymptomatic testing in South Gloucestershire”.
The Scottish cases have been traced back to the north-eastern region of Grampian, after three people flew from Brazil to Aberdeen via Paris and London in February.
The Scottish government says that the individuals entered self-isolation upon returning to Scotland, before later testing positive for the Brazilian variant, which saw them isolate for a further ten days.
How worried should we be?
While the number of people confirmed to be infected with the Brazilian variant is low, the fact that it may be more transmissible is a concern.
Health officials in Gloucestershire are trying to contain the situation and identify any possible community spread from the confirmed cases within the area, by inviting five postcode regions within the area for tests, while local health officials in Scotland say they are paying close attention to their cases to prevent further transmission.
The Labour shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has criticised the government, describing the discovery of the variants as “deeply concerning”. He added: “This is further proof that the delay in introducing a hotel quarantine was reckless and the continuing refusal to put in place a comprehensive system leaves us exposed to mutations coming from overseas”.
However, although the mutation from Brazil may have some resistance to some of the vaccines currently on offer, the strong state of Britain’s vaccination roll-out may help quell fears.
What does it mean for vaccines?
The good news is that testing so far seems to indicate that the current set of vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness to those that catch the variant.
Early tests on the Pfizer vaccine indicate that it can protect against the Brazilian mutation, albeit slightly less effectively in comparison to other strains.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine also seems to offer some protection against the new strain, as it did to the UK/Kent strain discovered a few months ago.
Likewise, the vaccine candidates from Novavax and another candidate from Janssen also seem to give some protection, the BBC reports.
And tests from Moderna seem to indicate protection to other more contagious variants such as the South African mutation, though the immune response may not be as strong or long lasting in comparison to other strains.
So while concerns should be taken seriously and every effort must be made to trace affected individuals, it is important to note that experts say the current portfolio of vaccines, which were designed around earlier variants of the virus, could be adapted if necessary.
Will this affection the lockdown roadmap?
It is too early to tell how prevalent the Brazilian variant is outside of the six identified cases, or how it will affect the impact of the vaccine roll-out or the roadmap set out by the Prime Minister on 22 February.
But Boris Johnson has made it clear that he would be willing to delay the rollback of lockdown rules should there be cause for concern over the spread of the virus and the ability of the NHS to cope with any rise in infections.
This means that, while the 20 million vaccination figure is a tremendous achievement, it needs to be taken in the context of the developing situation.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), warned that the new variant could have an adverse effect on the relaxation of lockdown.
“We are going to be faced with these [variants] in the next six months as we move towards relaxing measures,” he said. “There are going to be challenges on the way and there is always a risk that we might have to go backwards, and that’s what nobody wants.”
Last week, Johnson said the roadmap aimed to be “cautious but irreversible”. The emergence of the Brazilian variant in the UK is not a reason to panic, but it should cause ministers and officials to proceed with caution.