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Combined COVID mutations in the UK

February 3, 2021

A South African variant of coronavirus, now also in the UK, is making an existing mutation there more infectious and may even reduce the effect of vaccines.

Man and woman walk on a London street with a sign reading "High Alert"
Image: Tolga Akmen/Getty Images/AFP

Bad things seldom come alone. In the UK, COVID experts have detected the first cases of a British variant of the virus that is carrying an additional gene mutation seen also in a South African variant.

The cases are causing concern because it is possible that the two negative characteristics could combine.

In Britain, the variant B.1.1.7 has already made the virus more infectious. The South African variant 501Y.V2, meanwhile, carries a mutation called E484K. And that very same mutation — E484K — has been found in Brazilian variants as well, namely, variants B.1.1.33 and B.1.1.28.

Danger even for recovered patients

These mutations are thought to be especially infectious among people under the age of 20 years. They may also hinder the immune system's neutralizing antibodies — either those you would get through vaccination or after surviving a COVID-19 infection — from binding to the virus and doing their work.  

A woman in South Africa getting tested for COVID-19 before receiving a second vaccine shot
It's only possible to know which variants are spreading if samples are widely sequencedImage: Jerome Delay/AP Photo/picture alliance

That means that the vaccines in use may become less effective, offering people less protection. It also means that those people who have recovered from a coronavirus infection may be vulnerable to reinfection.

Authorities in Brazil have reported individual cases of such reinfection, where they detected the E484K mutation.

Sequencing the mutations provides better overview

As the coronavirus progresses, British health authorities have been sequencing samples far more intensively than authorities in other countries, such as Germany. As a result, the UK has a better overview of the variations spreading through the community.

In a study of 200,000 viral sequences, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) says it found 11 cases of mutation combinations. They say the evidence indicates that those were not isolated cases. The group suggests that further cases of these kinds are highly probable.

"A worrying development"

"NOT GOOD" is how Eric Feigl-Ding, an American epidemiologist with the Federation of American Scientists, described the situation.

And Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, calls the new cases a "worrying development." Tang told the BBC that any further spread of these variants could create a "melting pot" for yet more variants.

Tang said it was now important that people stuck to lockdown rules and that the spread of the virus was slowed — or else the virus would not only continue to spread but also continue to mutate.

Experts are concerned that if these mutations spread and take hold, it will be harder to contain the pandemic.

They are also concerned that if yet more people get infected in a short space of time, health systems, which are already under strain, may collapse altogether.

Vaccines face renewed testing

Researchers are now testing the vaccines that have been approved, and which are in use, to see how well they will protect people against the mutations and the mutation combinations.

The makers of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine say theirs is largely effective against the UK and South African variants.

A competitor vaccine made by Moderna, however, is said to be less effective.

Epidemiologist Feigl-Ding said in a tweet that while Moderna's vaccine was effective against the British variant, it was about six times less effective against the South African variant. 

Researchers and producers around the world are working on updating their vaccines to meet the challenges posed by the virus mutations.

But development, testing, approval, production and actual vaccination programs all take time — as we well know.

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