Mutant virus spreads to Hampshire

2 months ago 16

Surge Covid testing will be rolled out in Hampshire, Middlesbrough and Walsall after cases of the South Africa variant were detected. 

Additional surge testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed to the TS7 postcode in Middlesbrough, areas in Walsall and in specific areas in the RG26 postcode in Hampshire where the Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa has been found. 

The mutant coronavirus strain — which has now been spotted more than 200 times across the UK — was discovered around the Bramley area, which lies six miles north of Basingstoke.

The mutant coronavirus strain — which has now been spotted more than 200 times across the UK — was discovered around the Bramley (file image) area, which lies six miles north of Basingstoke

There are now six variants of coronavirus being investigated by Public Health England, five of which have already been found in the UK

Mutant strains of Covid-19 are spreading across the country despite the strict lockdown, threatening the government's plans to reopen the economy 

Hampshire County Council said 'the risk of transmission from this single case is considered to be very low' and surge testing in the area will get underway next week.

Surge testing — which involves local officials going door-to-door — has already been deployed in dozens of areas of England to find cases of troublesome variants. 

It comes as extra testing will be carried out in Middlesbrough following the detection of a case of the South African variant.

The case is linked to the Marton and Coulby Newham areas, and an additional test centre has now been set up at the Parkway Centre in Coulby Newham with residents older than 16 urged to get tested. 

An appointment is not needed. 

The operation in parts of Walsall has been extended in response to a confirmed second case of the variant which is not believed to be linked to international travel. 

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said people living within the targeted areas are strongly encouraged to take a Covid-19 test this week, whether they are showing symptoms or not. 

Meanwhile extra swabs were dished out to Bristol last week because of a cluster of cases of the Kent variant that had picked up a new mutation also found in the South African strain.  

Simon Bryant, director of public health at Hampshire County Council, said: 'I appreciate that this news may be worrying for the local community, but it's really important to understand that the risk of transmission from this single case is considered to be very low, helped by the fact that national restrictions are in place, with most people staying at home and adhering to the Government guidance of 'hands, face, space'

'Furthermore, there is no evidence that this particular variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccines do not protect against it.

'Following confirmation of the case and in line with Government guidelines, the county council has begun work with Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, Public Health England, our local NHS, as well as the Department of Health and Social Care, to arrange a localised surge-testing programme in the area. This is due to begin next week.

'The rapid local testing programme is primarily a precautionary measure designed to help the Government to better understand and prevent the spread of new variants across the country.'

There are fears that vaccines being dished out in Britain are less effective at stopping people becoming ill with the South African variant, after studies indicated they don't block the mutant strain as well as other types of the virus.

But scientists are confident they will still be potent enough to reduce Covid to 'the sniffles' and prevent vaccinated people from being hospitalised or dying — which is their main purpose.  

The South African variant of coronavirus, known as B.1.351, has mutations on its outer spike proteins that change the shape of the virus in a way that makes it look different to the body than older versions of the virus.

Because the immune system's antibodies are so specific, any change in the part of the virus that they attach to – in this case the spikes – can affect how well they can do so.

Current vaccines have been developed using versions of the virus from a year ago, which didn't have the mutations the South African variant does, so scientists are worried the immunity they create won't be good enough to stop it.

Research published last week claimed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine — the main jab being used in Britain's mammoth inoculation drive — appears to only have a 'minimal effect' against the variant.

A study of 2,000 people by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg found that two doses of the jab may only offer 10-20 per cent protection against mild or moderate Covid.

The study was controversial, however – nobody in the test group developed severe Covid but the researchers said this 'could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk'. Participants' average age was 31 and they were otherwise healthy.

Scientists working on the vaccine said they still believe it will be protective at cutting the risk of severe illness and death, however.

Oxford and AstraZeneca said they are already working on a booster jab targeted at the South African variant and that it will be ready by autumn.

According to Public Health England data analysed by the PA news agency, Middlesbrough currently has the fifth highest infection rate in England.

As of February 8, the rate per 100,000 people stood at 357.5, down slightly from 359.6 the week before.

Pictured: Handout photo issued by Cleveland Police of people going sledging at Flatts Lane Country Park in Middlesbrough on Wednesday. Issue date: Friday February 12, 2021. Police have warned the public of the Covid risks posed by large crowds after hundreds of people gathered to go sledging or drink in parks this week

Esther Mireku, consultant in public health in Middlesbrough, said: 'I urge everyone over the age of 16 in the Marton and Coulby Newham areas to come forward for a test. This will help us understand more about the potential spread of this new variant.

'While the overall Covid infection rate in Middlesbrough has now halved from its peak in early January, it has still not decreased as much as we would have liked.

'The high prevalence of Covid in the town, combined with the reporting of this variant, are a reminder to everyone of the importance of staying at home as much as possible and following hands-face-space when out for an essential reason.'

Local mayor Andy Preston said: 'New variants are popping up in different towns and cities around the country.

'What's really important now is that we establish whether the variant has spread further around Middlesbrough.'

Tees Valley's elected mayor Ben Houchen said people in the area should not be 'overly alarmed'.

He said: 'Our region has made phenomenal progress in vaccinating the majority of our most vulnerable residents thanks to the hard work and dedication of our NHS heroes.'

Mr Houchen said it was still critical for people to follow the rules to protect others.

Surge testing has been used in a number of areas across the country in attempts to get on top of new variants of the disease.

People in areas of Lambeth in south London as well as parts of Worcestershire, Manchester, Kent and Surrey have all been offered tests when cases of new strains have been identified.

The DHSC said surge testing in the Egham and Broxbourne areas, which began on February 6 and February 1, is now complete and further data on surge testing will be provided in due course. 

WILL THE CURRENT VACCINES WORK AGAINST SOUTH AFRICAN COVID VARIANT? 

The South African variant of coronavirus, known as B.1.351, has mutations on its outer spike proteins that change the shape of the virus in a way that makes it look different to the body than older versions of the virus.

Because the immune system's antibodies are so specific, any change in the part of the virus that they attach to – in this case the spikes – can affect how well they can do so.

Current vaccines have been developed using versions of the virus from a year ago, which didn't have the mutations the South African variant does, so scientists are worried the immunity they create won't be good enough to stop it.

Here's what we know about the vaccines and the variant so far:

Oxford/AstraZeneca (Approved; Being used in the UK)

Research published in February claimed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to have a 'minimal effect' against the South African variant.

A study of 2,000 people by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg found that two doses of the jab may only offer 10-20 per cent protection against mild or moderate Covid-19.

The study was controversial, however – nobody in the test group developed severe Covid-19 but the researchers said this 'could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk'. Participants' average age was 31 and they were otherwise healthy. 

Scientists working on the vaccine said they still believe it will be protective. 

Oxford and AstraZeneca said they are already working on a booster jab targeted at the South African variant and that it will be ready by autumn.

Pfizer/BioNTech (Approved; Being used in the UK)

Two studies suggest that Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine will protect against the South African variant, although its ability to neutralise the virus is lower.

One by Pfizer itself and the University of Texas found that the mutations had 'small effects' on its efficacy. In a lab study on the blood of 20 vaccine recipients they found a reduction in the numbers of working antibodies to tackle the variant, but it was still enough to destroy the virus, they said. 

Another study by New York University has made the same finding on 10 blood samples from people who had the jab. That team said there was a 'partial resistance' from the variant and that a booster should be made, but that it would still be more effective than past infection with another variant.

Pfizer is developing an updated version of its jab to tackle the variant. 

Moderna (Approved; Delivery expected in March)

Moderna said its vaccine 'retains neutralizing activity' in the face of the South African variant.

In a release in January the company said it had tested the jab on the blood of eight people who had received it and found that antibody levels were significantly lower when it was exposed to the South Africa variant, but it still worked.

It said: 'A six-fold reduction in neutralizing [antibodies] was observed with the B.1.351 variant relative to prior variants. Despite this reduction, neutralizing levels with B.1.351 remain above levels that are expected to be protective.'

Moderna is working on a booster jab to tackle the South African variant.

Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (Awaiting approval; 30m doses)

Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has trialled its vaccine in South Africa and found it prevented 57 per cent of Covid cases.

This was the lowest efficacy the company saw in its global trials – in Latin America it was 66 per cent and in the US 72 per cent. These differences are likely in part due to the variants in circulation.

The vaccine was 85 per cent effective at stopping severe disease and 100 per cent effective at stopping death from Covid-19, even in South Africa where the variant is dominant, Janssen said.

WHY ARE SCIENTISTS SO SCARED OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.351

When and where was it discovered? 

Scientists first noticed in December 2020 that the variant, named B.1.351, was genetically different in a way that could change how it acts.

It was picked up through random genetic sampling of swabs submitted by people testing positive for the virus, and was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay, around Port Elizabeth. 

What mutations did scientists find?

There are two key mutations on the South African variant that appear to give it an advantage over older versions of the virus – these are called N501Y and E484K.

Both are on the spike protein of the virus, which is a part of its outer shell that it uses to stick to cells inside the body, and which the immune system uses as a target.

They appear to make the virus spread faster and may give it the ability to slip past immune cells that have been made in response to a previous infection or a vaccine. 

What does N501Y do? 

N501Y changes the spike in a way which makes it better at binding to cells inside the body.

This means the viruses have a higher success rate when trying to enter cells when they get inside the body, meaning that it is more infectious and faster to spread.

This corresponds to a rise in the R rate of the virus, meaning each infected person passes it on to more others.

N501Y is also found in the Kent variant found in England, and the two Brazilian variants of concern – P.1. and P.2.

What does E484K do?

The E484K mutation found on the South African variant is more concerning because it tampers with the way immune cells latch onto the virus and destroy it.

Antibodies – substances made by the immune system – appear to be less able to recognise and attack viruses with the E484K mutation if they were made in response to a version of the virus that didn't have the mutation.

Antibodies are extremely specific and can be outwitted by a virus that changes radically, even if it is essentially the same virus.

South African academics found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to the new variant. One researcher said it was 'clear that we have a problem'.

Vaccine makers, however, have tried to reassure the public that their vaccines will still work well and will only be made slightly less effective by the variant. 

How many people in the UK have been infected with the variant?  

At least 200 Brits have been infected with this variant, according to Public Health England's random sampling.

The number is likely to be far higher, however, because PHE has only picked up these cases by randomly scanning the genetics of around 15 per cent of all positive Covid tests in the UK. 

Where else has it been found?

According to the PANGO Lineages website, the variant has been officially recorded in 31 other countries worldwide.  

The UK has had the second highest number of cases after South Africa itself.  

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