New UK Covid mutation ‘cause for anxiety’ says UEA expert
- Credit: PA
A new mutation detected in the UK variant of coronavirus is a “cause for anxiety” until there is widespread vaccination, a leading expert at the University of East Anglia has said.
Scientists have described the mutation, known as E484K, already present in both South African and Brazilian coronavirus variants, as "a worrying development" that could have an impact on the effectiveness of some Covid-19 vaccines.
It was previously thought this mutation was not present in the UK variant.
Professor Paul Hunter, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said it was “almost inevitable” we would see more mutations and until there was widespread vaccine coverage it is “still a cause of anxiety that we need to be very careful about”.
“Effectively what we now have is two different variants with both the increased infectiousness mutation that was associated with the earlier Kent and the increased resistance to vaccine that is associated with the South African strain,” he told BBC news.
“Vaccine is slightly reduced against the E484K mutation that is in the South African and now new English variant but it doesn’t invalidate vaccination.
“It is still quite effective particularly against stopping severe disease and needing to go into hospital.”
A recent report published by Public Health England said gene sequencing has shown that the E484K mutation has occurred spontaneously in only a handful of cases of the UK variant.
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Dr Jonathan Stoye, of The Francis Crick Institute, said: "This suggests that the UK variant is now independently acquiring the E484K change.
"From a virological standpoint, appearance of new variants by mutation during replication cannot be considered surprising.
"Whether this change will provide significant growth advantages for the novel virus causing it to predominate remains to be seen."
Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor at the University of Leicester, described the finding as "a worrying development, though not entirely unexpected".
He said it is important that people follow lockdown rules and get new cases of coronavirus down to prevent opportunities for the virus to mutate further.
He added that allowing spread could provide a "melting pot" for different emerging variants.
Prof Hunter said: “It was bound to happen but as long as we manage to roll-out the vaccine effectively to all vulnerable people, it shouldn’t have too much of an impact going forward.”
UEA research on the effectiveness of vaccines is due to be published in the coming days.
“We do know that a single dose of vaccine gives very good antibody levels and my group will be publishing a paper, hopefully this week, showing that the single dose Pfizer vaccine probably gives up to 90pc protection after 21 days,” said Prof Hunter.
Vaccines to tackle new strains could be created for laboratory testing in just three weeks, said Prof Robin Shattock, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research at Imperial College London.
He said: "Vaccine researchers around the world are looking at these new variants and making new vaccine candidates against them so we can study in the laboratory.
"We can make these vaccines in the lab in a three-week process but then to actually get them manufactured, that would take two to three months to get to the manufacturing stage and into the clinic - that's still quite fast.”
Prof Shattock said a new vaccine could be developed as an "annual booster", adding: "That's an update that then makes the immune response effective against new variants that may arise between now and later in the year."