Figures published by Public Health England (PHE) show there is a new coronavirus variant proliferating on UK shores. There have been 73 cases detected in England and another four in Scotland of the new Indian variant, also known as B.1.617. It is thought to be behind a tsunami of cases being recorded in India.
But there are also differences in the genome and this uncertainty raises legitimate concerns over vaccine effectiveness.
The government said that an analysis of the samples collected from the western state of Maharashtra showed “an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations” compared with December last year.
“Such [double] mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity,” the health ministry said in a statement.
Lab tests show both mutations help the virus to infect human cells and evade some antibodies.
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Speaking to the BBC, Dr Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport, said the E484Q is similar to E484K – a mutation seen in the B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil) variants, which have sprouted up independently several times.
If enough mutations happen in a viral family tree or a lineage, the virus can begin to function differently and the lineage can become a so-called “variant of concern”, Dr Jeremy Kamil said.
As far as the L452R mutation – also found in the “double mutation” in India – it first got attention as part of B.1.427/B.1.429 lineage in the US, which is sometimes called the “California variant”, he told the BBC.
Will the vaccines work agains the new Indian variant?
In short, it’s too early to say how effective the current crop of vaccines will prove against the new variant.
“Because COVID-19 vaccines train our immune system to respond to the spike proteins on the surface of the virus, there is concern that new variants with changes to the spike protein that help them evade immune responses may also render vaccines ineffective,” explains the COVID Symptom Study app.
Fortunately, research has shown that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is working well against the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the UK.
However, because the trial mainly included young people who don’t tend to get seriously ill from COVID-19, it wasn’t possible to investigate the vaccine’s effect on rates of severe disease.
Laboratory studies suggest that the Pfizer and Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines offer some protection against the Brazil variant, but more work is needed to confirm this.
As COVID-19 continues to spread in many places, new variants will continue to emerge, especially in areas where rates of infection remain high.
According to the team behind the Symptom Study app, experts think future variants could help the virus avoid immune recognition, meaning that we will need new vaccines.
The CEO of Pfizer has signalled that the threat of new variants will not be going away anytime soon.
Albert Bourla said a potential booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine would be administered six to 12 months after being fully vaccinated.
The jab will then be offered annually, he suggested during a panel discussion.