health

Daily Covid cases almost HALVE in a week to lowest level since September


Britain’s Covid outbreak is continuing to shrink rapidly, with daily infections having almost halved in a week to the lowest levels since September.

Deaths have also plunged by 42 per cent, according to the Government’s own figures that will pile more pressure on Boris Johnson to consider easing draconian lockdown restrictions sooner. 

Department of Health bosses today posted 5,455 more infections and 104 fatalities. It is the lowest daily case toll since September 28, and the fewest victims since October 26. For comparison, 10,641 coronavirus cases and 178 deaths were announced last Monday.

With a catalogue of data showing the second wave is firmly in retreat, anti-lockdown Tory MPs are demanding that lockdown must be lifted sooner. No10 has promised all restrictions will go by June 21 at the earliest, so long as the vaccine drive is successful and continues rolling out hundreds of thousands of doses a day.  

Britain’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi today claimed the Covid inoculation rollout could go at twice its current speed over the next three months. He promised March would be a ‘very big month’ for the programme. Another 185,000 first doses were dished out yesterday — up by almost a third week-on-week.

It comes after the Prime Minister insisted the Brazil coronavirus variant will not derail his lockdown ‘roadmap’ as he vowed a ‘massive effort’ to stop it spreading further. He played down the dangers amid a huge hunt after health officials admitted they do not know the identity of one of the people infected with the worrying strain. 

Six cases of the P.1 variant first detected in the Amazonian city of Manaus have been confirmed in Britain — three in England and three in Scotland. 

Two were tracked to South Gloucestershire but the third English case has not been located and may be anywhere in the nation because they failed to fill in personal details when they were tested for Covid. Public Health England has said it is working with the postal service try and track where the kit had been sent.  

On a visit to a school in Stoke-on-Trent today, Mr Johnson denied that the country was paying the price for being slow to implement tough controls such as quarantine hotels, saying 'as fast as we could' to bring in a 'very tough regime'

On a visit to a school in Stoke-on-Trent today, Mr Johnson denied that the country was paying the price for being slow to implement tough controls such as quarantine hotels, saying ‘as fast as we could’ to bring in a ‘very tough regime’

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT? 

Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1

Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2. 

Why should we care? The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.

It has a third, less well-studied mutation called K417T, and the ramifications of this are still being researched. 

What do the mutations do?

The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people’s bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious. 

Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor. 

Even if the virus doesn’t appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.

Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant. 

E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover. 

Do our vaccines work against it?

There are concerns that vaccines might be less effective against the Brazilian strain, with trials of the Johnson & Johnson jab finding it was slightly less effective in Latin America at preventing mild or moderate cases. 

However, the trials found it still prevented hospitalisations and deaths.

No studies have tested the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against the P1 variant, while Moderna and Pfizer say their mRNA coronavirus vaccines should work against variants with the E484K mutation, with early results showing that these vaccines are only slightly less effective against the P1 variant.   

When the Brazilian variant first emerged and how traveller who brought it to the UK missing hotel quarantine scheme by just five days

November 18 – UK Government announces its ‘red list’ of countries from which travel is banned. This includes Brazil due to the large number of cases there. 

December – The city of Manaus, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, experiences a fresh wave of Covid cases. These are later linked to the new ‘Brazilian variant’.  

January 10  – Japan announces the detection of the new variant – P.1 – in travellers from Brazil and reports it to the World Health Organisation. 

22 – Germany is the first European country to identify cases of the variant; followed by Italy on the 25th, and the Netherlands on the 29th. 

25 – Brazilian variant is detected in the USA.  

February 4 – Cases identified in France, followed by Portugal on the 11th and Ireland on the 19th. 

5 – UK Government confirms a scheme for mandatory hotel quarantine that will be introduced from February 15. Brazil is one of the countries on the red list. 

10 – One individual arrives in London from Brazil via Zurich. They later test positive for the Brazil variant and infect one other person in their household. 

 15 – UK hotel quarantine scheme launches, five days after this first confirmed cases arrived. 

28 – UK health officials announce that six cases of the Brazilian variant have been identified, three in England and three in Scotland. Two South Gloucestershire cases flew into London from Zurich on February 10 – five days before the hotel quarantine scheme started. 

The missing case had their test processed on February 14 – meaning that it is likely they took it a day or possibly two earlier.       

The Brazilian city that thought 75% of its population  was protected with antibodies before second wave ‘fueled by mutant strain’ 

Brazil has been in the grip of a second wave despite the fact that the variant emerged in a population that was already approaching herd immunity and should have been protected.    

Scientists fear that coronavirus outbreaks in Manaus, where the Brazilian variant emerged, may be able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity.

Research published last year suggested that around 75 per cent of the population of Manaus, located in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, was thought to have been infected by the virus when it first spread across the globe.

This should have sparked ‘herd immunity’, scientists said. Typically, if such large share of a population has been infected previously, those people will be immune and prevent the virus from spreading. 

But officials fear that the new strain could cause reinfection following an unexpected surge of new cases in Brazil last month. 

This may have put evolutionary pressure on the regular Covid strain to adapt to be able to slip past natural immunity to the original version, according to Professor Wendy Barclay, a top virologist at Imperial College London. 

After the variant appeared in December, cases spiked again, indicating its mutations may be able to evade immune system antibodies that were developed in response to previous infections.

Scientists say this could make the vaccine less effective because they rely on the same types of antibodies, and were designed based on the first virus identified in Wuhan, China, which did not have mutations present in the new variants. 

Researchers say Manaus is particularly vulnerable to Covid because it has high levels of social deprivation, with workers living in crowded, multi-generational housing.  It is also a free-trade zone and one of Brazil’s largest exporter cities, with frequent traffic from Europe and Asia. 

Because the virus naturally mutates as it jumps between people, Manaus provided the perfect breeding ground for the virus to evolve.  

In Manaus, there have been reports of dead bodies having to be dumped in freezer trucks and patients being flown to different states due to a chronic shortage of oxygen and hospital beds. 

Brazil’s capital entered a two-week lockdown on Sunday, joining other states in adopting measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

At least eight Brazilian states adopted curfews over the past week due to the rise in deaths from Covid-19 amid a second wave of cases.

Thursday was Brazil’s deadliest day since the beginning of the pandemic, with 1,541 deaths confirmed from the virus. So far 254,000 people have died overall.

Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha decreed the total closure of bars, restaurants, shopping malls and schools until March 15 and prohibited gatherings of people. Sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited after 8pm.

In the federal district, 85 per cent of hospital beds were occupied on Sunday, according to the local health ministry.

President Jair Bolsonaro again criticised such measures, saying on his Twitter account: ‘The people want to work.’

He threatened on Friday to cut off federal emergency pandemic assistance to states resorting to lockdowns, saying: ‘Governors who close down their states will have to provide for their own emergency aid.’  

On a visit to a school in Stoke-on-Trent today, Mr Johnson denied that the country was paying the price for being slow to implement tough controls such as quarantine hotels, saying ‘as fast as we could’ to bring in a ‘very tough regime’.

He said a ‘massive effort’ was under way to prevent new coronavirus variants spreading.

‘If you look at what we have done in the case of the South African variant, a massive effort went in there,’ he said.

‘The same is going on now to contain any spread of the Brazilian variant.’

Mr Johnson said there was ‘no reason not to think that our vaccines are effective against these variants of concern at the present time’, saying Public Health England ‘don’t think that there is a threat to the wider public’. 

And pushed on whether the reopening of society will need to be delayed further, he said the current timetable was ‘cautious’ and schools will be back up and running as planned from March 8. On the roadmap schedule, he said: ‘We don’t think there is any reason on this basis to change that now.’ 

Experts believe that the Brazil strain can sidestep existing antibodies to some degree, potentially raising questions about the effectiveness of current jabs. 

Earlier, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi appealed for anyone who was tested on February 12 or 13 and has not received a result, or had an incomplete test registration card, to come forward.

It is possible the individual may not even know they were ill, with speculation it was either a home testing kit or part of ‘surge’ screening. 

Scientists have raised alarm that if the variant takes hold in the UK it could ‘slow things down’ in the fight to escape lockdown restrictions as it makes vaccines ‘so much less potent’. 

And the government is facing questions over why it did not act earlier to tighten up the borders – with warnings that foreign holidays will not be possible this summer.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said ministers were too slow, while the Welsh First Minister said the UK should be ‘building the walls higher’ rather than preparing to resume international travel.  

One of the P1 cases, found in South Gloucestershire, flew into London from Brazil via Zurich on February 10 – only five days before arrivals from there became required to quarantine in a hotel for ten nights. 

Officials are also tracking down 136 passengers on Swiss Air flight, LX318 travelling from Sao Paulo, through Zurich, and landing in Heathrow on February 10.

Mr Zahawi said that the P.1 variant first detected in Brazil was similar in terms of its mutations to the variant first detected in South Africa.

‘In terms of its profile, this P.1 variant is much closer to the South African variant, which we’ve been dealing with now for several weeks by surge testing, genome sequencing and isolation,’ he told Sky News.

‘This variant is a variant of concern, it is very similar in terms of its mutations to the South African variant. So, it is concerning.’

On the two cases identified in South Gloucestershire, Mr Zahawi said one had travelled from Sao Paulo through Zurich to London prior to the hotel quarantine.

‘They did take a pre-departure test and filled in their passenger locator form, which is why we are able to deal with them so effectively and work with South Gloucestershire Council,’ he said.

‘There is minimal reason to believe that there may be further spread because they have been isolating correctly.

‘But we will be doing asymptomatic testing in South Gloucestershire.’

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of SAGE, warned the nation might need to ‘go backwards’ in terms of relaxing restrictions.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is a variant of concern but we are going to be faced with these in the next six months as we move towards relaxing measures – 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 to do is to actually open up and then have to close down again.

‘So monitoring these variants, keeping an eye on in terms of what they actually do – so sequencing, for example, viruses in hospitals – I think is a crucial step to know whether or not this variant and other variants in the future, what impact they’re actually having.’    

Surge testing will begin today in five areas of Gloucestershire just north of Bristol to hunt down any more cases.  

The Scottish Government has not announced surge testing for any postcodes linked to the Aberdeen cases.

Officials said the missing case is not believed to be linked to the others because the virus was found to have slight genetic differences, and said their test was processed on February 14 – meaning that it is likely they took it a day or possibly two earlier. 

Dr Susan Hopkins of PHE said today: ‘We are looking at where that test may have been sent from and to, working with the postal services, and the courier services.’ 

There are concerns that vaccines might be less effective against the Brazilian strain, with trials of the Johnson & Johnson jab finding it was slightly less effective in Latin America at preventing mild or moderate cases. However, the trials found it still prevented hospitalisations and deaths.

No studies have tested the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against the P1 variant, while Moderna and Pfizer say their mRNA coronavirus vaccines should work against variants with the E484K mutation, with early results showing that these vaccines are only slightly less effective against the P1 variant.  

NHS Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis immediately sought to calm public fears about the variant by explaining that vaccines can be quickly adapted within months to tackle new strains. 

But Sir Keir said the discovery of the Brazilian coronavirus variant in the UK showed the Government has not ‘secured our borders in the way we should have done’.

Speaking at a virtual meeting with Welsh businesses to mark St David’s Day, Mr Starmer said: ‘It demonstrates the slowness of the Government to close off even the major routes, but also the unwillingness to confront the fact that the virus doesn’t travel by direct flights.

‘We know from last summer that a lot of virus came in from countries where it didn’t originate in, but people were coming indirect, and that’s the way people travel.

‘I still think we haven’t secured our borders in the way we should have done, and the sooner that’s done the better.’

Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford said he had ‘worries’ about Boris Johnson’s comments that international travel could return in May and that he would instead ‘build the walls higher for now’ to prevent bringing in coronavirus variants to the UK.

Mr Drakeford told a virtual meeting with Welsh businesses and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer: ‘It worries me hugely to hear the Prime Minister say that he intends to reopen international travel in May of this year.

‘Our September in Wales was made far more difficult by the fact that we had a big importation of the virus from France, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey. Every day I will be reading of new outbreaks of people who have gone away, caught the virus and brought it back with them.

‘If ever there was a year to be staying at home and to be enjoying all the fantastic things Wales has to offer, this must be it.

‘I would build the walls higher for now against the risk that we would bring into this country the variants that could be brewing in any part of the world, and could then put at risk all the careful work we have done to try and keep Wales safe.’

Asked how worried people should be about the Brazilian variant, Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College, told Times Radio: ‘Somewhat worried but not total panic, perhaps.

‘It’s somewhat more worrying than the UK variant, the Kent variant, that we’re used to talking about, because it covers the double whammy, we think, of being more transmissible and somewhat better at evading neutralising antibodies.’

Prof Altmann said the lockdown ‘roadmap’ could be torpedoed if the variant became widespread.

‘The way I think about it is it’s a bit like, and I think about the effect that the Kent variant had on us, it just slowed everything up because suddenly things started to get a little bit worse again, and you know the end seemed a little bit further away,’ he said.

‘When I look at the data on how well this variant gets neutralised, it’s not that all immunity is gone, it’s that the vaccines look so much less potent, so there’ll be more people who have low antibody responses where it can break through and get affected. It all comes back much harder.’ 

Yvette Cooper, home affairs select committee chair, said stronger action was needed by the Government to prevent other more dangerous variants arriving in the UK.

‘We need to look at how these cases have arrived in the country in the first place in order to prevent others doing so,’ the Labour MP told Today.

‘These cases seem to have arrived a month after the Brazil variant was first identified and we were raising with the Government the need for stronger action.’

She said there were obvious ‘gaps’ in the system and the Government should be ‘learning lessons’ from countries such as South Korea and New Zealand, which have extra precautions such as testing and transport home from airports.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the discovery of six cases of the Brazilian P1 variant of the coronavirus in the UK showed the need for tighter controls.

‘Absolutely we have got to look at what has gone wrong,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme.

‘It shows that it needs to be tightened up still further because if we are going to protect the road map out of lockdown then the name of the game is going to be stop new variants coming in, some of which may end up being immune to the new vaccines.

‘Where we need to get to is a much, much more thorough combination of test and trace and genetic sequencing so we are not just testing the people who have been near someone who tested positive, but we also are working out where the original infection happened and which variant it is.

‘You can only do that if you bring the cases right down.’

Critics pointed to the Government’s decision to delay hotel quarantine, which began last month to catch mutant strains, accusing ministers of ‘dithering’ for a year on the policy. 

Paul Charles, the chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, told the Telegraph: ‘This calls into question the border measures the Government claimed were watertight to prevent variants coming in. This is why only testing on arrival is going to be successful in preventing variants coming into the UK.’ 

The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘We have had for a long time the requirement for people to isolate when they arrive in the UK. We now ensure that people have a negative test before they enter the UK.

‘That is why we had those border policies to try and reduce the number of variants that enter the UK and stop the reimportation of cases. The important thing is that when people arrive they follow the border restrictions.’

The spokesman said that it was very unusual for people not to fill in their details correctly after taking a coronavirus test, as happened in the case of one of those with the Brazilian variant who is now being sought.

‘In a very, very few rare cases individuals do not complete that information, which means that extra action has to be taken to track them down. That is what we are currently doing with regards to the Brazil variant,’ the spokesman said.

The spokesman said schools would still reopen next Monday, including South Gloucestershire where two cases had been found. 

‘Schools will reopen on March 8 as we set out in the road map,’ he said.

‘We have deployed the extra surge testing in Gloucestershire to ensure that if there are any other cases in that local area we can identify then and ensure those people are isolated.’

Downing Street indicated that UK officials will discuss the European Union’s plans for ‘vaccine passports’ with counterparts in Brussels.

The European Commission has set out plans for a ‘digital green pass’ which would record vaccination status and test results, and could unlock travel for work and tourism.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We have said that we are looking at the issue of vaccine passports.

‘As you can expect, DfT (the Department for Transport) will work and do speak to countries across the world in terms of how they may look to introduce passports.’ 

Expert Kristian G Andersen has said of the variants: ‘Despite [the Brazilian variant] B.1.351 / P.1 likely gaining a fitness advantage as more people become immune, the solution obviously isn’t to stop or slow vaccination – quite the contrary, it’s to accelerate vaccination. Why? Because the vaccines are still effective against them. 

‘Likely not as effective as they are against non-B.1.351/P.1 lineages, but still effective. So the more vaccines we can get into the arms of people, the fewer numbers of overall infections (including those from B.1.351/P.1) we will have by the time they start to rise, the better.’ 

The P1 strain has been traced to the Brazilian city of Manaus and has raised fears that it is resistant to coronavirus antibodies because scientists believed the city had hit herd immunity with 75% of people having antibodies – before a second wave began.   

Officials said the missing case is not believed to be linked to the others because the virus was found to have slight genetic differences, and said their test was processed on February 14 – meaning that it is likely they took it a day or possibly two earlier.   

The hotel quarantine system, which came into force on February 15, requires travellers coming to England from 33 ‘high-risk’ countries including Brazil to confine themselves to their rooms for 10 days, while in Scotland the rule applies to travellers from all countries.  

Public Health England believes that person is unlikely to have taken their test at one of the regional test sites, where staff can check contact details, but it could have been a home test or from local surge testing. 

Health officials have now issued an appeal asking anyone who took a test on either February 12 or 13 and who has not received a result or has an incomplete test registration card to come forward immediately. 

They are also tracking down hundreds of passengers on Swiss Air flight, LX318 travelling from Sao Paulo, through Zurich, and landing in Heathrow on February 10, and will deploy ‘surge testing’ in five areas of the county to hunt down any more cases.    

It is understood that officials became aware of the English cases on Friday and the Scottish ones on Saturday. However, when questioned about rising case rates in a fifth of areas, Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC yesterday that he had not received any evidence of new variants having emerged. 

MPs were told this week that around 1,200 people are currently in a number of Government-approved hotels, while more than 100 people a day are going into the hotels at London Heathrow Airport where they must stay at a cost of £1,750 for the accommodation. 

Arrivals who leave before the end of the quarantine period could be fined a maximum of £10,000, while those who lie about where they have been could be jailed for a maximum of 10 years.  

Wearing a mask, Mr Johnson chatted to head girl Hirah Hussain on a bus library during a visit to St Mary's CE Primary School

Wearing a mask, Mr Johnson chatted to head girl Hirah Hussain on a bus library during a visit to St Mary’s CE Primary School

Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: ‘We would encourage everyone across the country to adhere to the necessary public health restrictions by staying at home except for essential purposes as this is the single best way of staying safe and stopping the spread of this virus. It is now also illegal for anyone to travel to or from Scotland unless it is for an essential reason.’

Dr Hopkins, PHE’s strategic response director for Covid-19, said: ‘We have identified these cases thanks to the UK’s advanced sequencing capabilities which means we are finding more variants and mutations than many other countries and are therefore able to take action quickly. 

‘The important thing to remember is that Covid-19, no matter what variant it is, spreads in the same way. That means the measures to stop it spreading do not change.’ 

A Government spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘Very occasionally we do have a test result where the individual has not provided their details. Every effort is underway to locate this person and in the meantime it is important people come forward for testing, continue to follow the restrictions in place and stay at home whenever possible.’ 

Cases of the mutant strain were detected in France, Italy, the Netherlands and the Faroe Islands earlier this month, amid warnings from British scientists that it was only ‘a matter of time’ before it landed on UK shores. In January, a coronavirus variant from Brazil was found in the UK – but it was not the ‘variant of concern’.   

Brazil is in the middle of a devastating second wave of Covid, with more than 1,000 deaths a day, and has the second highest fatality toll worldwide at 254,000 – despite the fact that the variant emerged in a population that was already approaching herd immunity and should have been protected.

At least two variants have spawned there, which experts believe is due to such a high level of sustained transmission, and multiple others are in circulation.  

Research last year suggested that 76 per cent of people in Manaus had had coronavirus by October. But officials fear that the new strain could cause reinfection following an unexpected surge of new cases last month. 

On Sunday the Brazilian capital entered a two-week lockdown, joining at least eight other states in adopting curfews and draconian measures this past week due to the rise in cases and deaths. 

It comes after Britain reported a further 6,035 coronavirus cases within the previous 24 hours and 144 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test – marking a huge drop on last week. 

PHE and Test and Trace also announced that surge testing will take place in South Gloucestershire after cases of the Manaus variant were discovered. 

Residents who live in five postcode areas, who are aged over 16 and do not have symptoms of Covid-19, are invited to come forward for testing.

People who travel into the areas – BS32 0, BS32 8, BS32 9, BS34 5 and BS34 6 – for work or to visit someone they are in a support bubble with are also able to have a test.

The identified postcode areas fall within Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke – and are different to those who were part of the previous community surge testing programme in February.

That testing followed identification of the Bristol variant and authorities say there is no connection between the two programmes.

Drive-in surge testing sites will be open at Stoke Gifford Parkway Park & Ride, as well as The Mall Coach Park at The Mall Cribbs Causeway from 9am on Monday.

A range of community-based locations, where residents can walk-in to collect a test kit, take it home and complete it there then return it for processing, will also be open from Monday.

The programme is expected to run for one week, ending on March 7, with the facilities open each day.

Sara Blackmore, director of Public Health at South Gloucestershire Council, urged people who were invited to come forward and take a test.

‘We are keen that all South Gloucestershire residents in the postcode areas identified take part in this testing, which will help us to identify positive cases and prompt self-isolation, which helps to break the chain of transmission,’ she said.

‘We do recognise the challenge for residents of undertaking another additional testing programme and want to thank you in advance for your patience and support as we continue to work together to protect our communities from Covid-19.

‘We are working together with local and regional health partners, Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, to deliver this swift, safe and co-ordinated response, with an enhanced community testing offer available to people in and around areas where this variant has been discovered.’

The surge testing is in addition to testing for people who have symptoms, and regular rapid asymptomatic testing for essential workers.

Ms Blackmore said it would ‘enable closer monitoring’ and work to reduce further transmission of Covid-19. ‘Even though we have a national road map to recovery from Covid-19, it is vital that we continue to follow the advice, which remains the same to everyone,’ she added.

‘Behave as if you are carrying the virus, stay in and only leave home if you must.

‘Do not mix socially outside of your household and continue to observe public health guidance – hands, face, space. If you are invited to receive a vaccine, please do so.’

People will be able to collect tests from Little Stoke Community Centre and Patchway Community Centre from Monday. Two additional sites will open at Bradley Stoke Jubilee Centre and Baileys Court Activity Centre from Tuesday.

South Gloucestershire Council confirmed that any positive tests would be followed up with genome sequencing to identify the precise strain of Covid-19 in each case. The testing will use PCR tests, which are analysed in laboratories, rather than lateral flow tests.

Mike Wade, deputy regional director for Public Health England South West, said: ‘All viruses mutate over time and since the start of the pandemic over 4,000 mutations have been identified in the UK.

‘Most are not a concern for scientists, but we know that some mutations result in virus variants that we are keen to track more carefully. In the South West we’re working with NHS Test and Trace and local authority public health teams on tailored intervention measures for variants.

‘These include more testing, additional genomic sequencing and enhanced contact tracing, enabling us to quickly identify any further cases and help prevent any onward spread.’

The new ‘variant of concern’ in Brazil was first identified in Rio de Janeiro, the sprawling but densely populated city on the country’s seaside in October. 

At first, it was mostly isolated to the city, but already driving cases and infections  back again in the hard-hit city, which has seen 470,138 cases to-date.  But, by December 23, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro researchers who discovered it were becoming concerned.  

‘The significant increase in the frequency of this lineage raises concerns about public health management and the need for genomic surveillance during the second wave of infections,’ they wrote. 

At the time, it was clear that the variant was becoming more common, but how exactly it differed and might be more dangerous was not clear. But by December 26, the potential risks of its mutations were becoming clearer. 

Brazil has been in the grip of a second wave despite the fact that the variant emerged in a population that was already approaching herd immunity and should have been protected.    

Scientists fear that coronavirus outbreaks in Manaus, where the Brazilian variant emerged, may be able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity.

Research published last year suggested that around 75 per cent of the population of Manaus, located in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, was thought to have been infected by the virus when it first spread across the globe.

This should have sparked ‘herd immunity’, scientists said. Typically, if such large share of a population has been infected previously, those people will be immune and prevent the virus from spreading. 

But officials fear that the new strain could cause reinfection following an unexpected surge of new cases in Brazil last month. 

This may have put evolutionary pressure on the regular Covid strain to adapt to be able to slip past natural immunity to the original version, according to Professor Wendy Barclay, a top virologist at Imperial College London. 

After the variant appeared in December, cases spiked again, indicating its mutations may be able to evade immune system antibodies that were developed in response to previous infections.

Scientists say this could make the vaccine less effective because they rely on the same types of antibodies, and were designed based on the first virus identified in Wuhan, China, which did not have mutations present in the new variants. 

Researchers say Manaus is particularly vulnerable to Covid because it has high levels of social deprivation, with workers living in crowded, multi-generational housing.  It is also a free-trade zone and one of Brazil’s largest exporter cities, with frequent traffic from Europe and Asia. 

Because the virus naturally mutates as it jumps between people, Manaus provided the perfect breeding ground for the virus to evolve.  

In Manaus, there have been reports of dead bodies having to be dumped in freezer trucks and patients being flown to different states due to a chronic shortage of oxygen and hospital beds. 

Brazil’s capital entered a two-week lockdown on Sunday, joining other states in adopting measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

At least eight Brazilian states adopted curfews over the past week due to the rise in deaths from Covid-19 amid a second wave of cases.

Thursday was Brazil’s deadliest day since the beginning of the pandemic, with 1,541 deaths confirmed from the virus. So far 254,000 people have died overall.

Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha decreed the total closure of bars, restaurants, shopping malls and schools until March 15 and prohibited gatherings of people. 

Sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited after 8pm. In the federal district, 85 per cent of hospital beds were occupied on Sunday, according to the local health ministry.

President Jair Bolsonaro again criticised such measures, saying on his Twitter account: ‘The people want to work.’ He threatened on Friday to cut off federal emergency pandemic assistance to states resorting to lockdowns, saying: ‘Governors who close down their states will have to provide for their own emergency aid.’   

Cases of the mutant strain were detected in Europe last month, with the Netherlands declaring two cases of the variant in travellers returning from Brazil on January 28. 

France had announced four by January 22, and Italy said it had identified three cases in travellers returning from Brazil by January 17. 

The Danish-controlled Faroe Islands were the first European area to reveal they had a case of the variant on January 12, which was also identified in a traveller arriving from Brazil.

Spain claimed it had detected a care on February 5, in a 44-year-old man returning from Brazil.

And the German state of Hesse, in the west of the country, claimed to have identified two cases by January 22. But these cases are yet to be rubber-stamped by international experts. 

There is mounting concern over the Brazilian strain because of its E484K mutation. It has also been found to carry the N501Y mutation, which scientists say made the Kent variant far more infectious and allowed it to rapidly spread across Britain. 

Another key mutation in the variant, named K417T, has the potential to ‘possibly escape some antibodies’, according to COG-UK.   

Will Covid vaccines work against the Brazilian variant? And will it become the dominant strain in Britain? All you need to know about the mutated virus found in England and Scotland 

Britain yesterday announced its first six cases of a Brazilian coronavirus variant that ministers had been desperately trying to keep out of the country.

The strain — scientifically known as P1 — has mutated in a way that appears to make it more likely to infect people who caught other strains of Covid or who have been vaccinated.

It was first discovered in Manaus, a city of two million people in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, in December.

The city suffered a massive outbreak despite being thought to have high levels of protection from earlier spread of the virus, with may people getting reinfected, dealing a huge blow to the idea that herd immunity to the virus might develop naturally. 

Scientists have since picked up on the variant in at least 25 countries around the world, including the UK, US, Italy, France, Belgium, Ireland and Switzerland.

Vaccines might be less effective against it but are still likely to work, experts say, and it isn’t likely to become the dominant strain in the UK while the Kent variant is still circulating.

Here, MailOnline explains all the facts you need to know about the variant:

What is the P1 Brazilian variant and why are scientists worried?

The P1 variant is one of two that have been discovered in Brazil and is the more worrying of the two because of a key mutation called E484K.

E484K has been found on the South African variant and studies suggest it changes the shape of the virus in a way that alters how the immune system recognises it.

The body uses highly specific proteins called antibodies to tackle the virus when it gets into the body, and antibodies made to fit one virus generally won’t fit another. 

If the coronavirus mutates too much it can start to look like a different virus and antibodies made in response to an older variant might not recognise the new one as well. This can lower the success rate they have when attacking the new strain.

This appears to be happening with the South African variant and the P1 Brazilian strain, making reinfections and, in theory, infection after vaccination more likely.

However, the virus is still recognised by most of the immune system and scientists are confident immunity will work across the board at preventing death and severe illness. 

Antibodies are only one part of the immune system – an easily measured part, which is why they are useful in studies – and other substances such as white blood cells can boost people’s immunity but may be harder to measure in studies.

Where is the variant in the UK?

Six cases of positive tests caused by the P1 variant have been detected in the UK – three in England and three in Scotland.

Two of the cases in England have been traced to Bristol with surge testing now in  the BS32 and BS34 postcodes, in the Filton, Stoke Gifford and Almondsbury areas.

One of the English cases has not been tracked down because the person who took the test didn’t give their personal details.

Ministers are desperately trying to trace anyone who took a swab test on February 12 or 13 and hasn’t yet had a result.

The three cases in Scotland landed on a flight to Aberdeen and are in self-isolation.

All six of them had flown into the UK from Sao Paolo, Brazil, via Zurich in Switzerland.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi claimed the five who had been tracked down had all followed proper procedure of testing negative before flying, admitting they had come from Brazil, and self-isolating when they arrived.

The city where new Brazilian strain defeated herd immunity 

Brazil's infection rate is at near-record levels with nearly 400,000 cases confirmed in the last week alone and the so-called P1 variant causing havoc

Brazil’s infection rate is at near-record levels with nearly 400,000 cases confirmed in the last week alone and the so-called P1 variant causing havoc 

The Brazilian Covid variant detected in the UK is running rife in the Amazon city where it first emerged, despite the population approaching herd immunity – suggesting the new strain can evade existing antibodies.

Scientists believe that around 75 per cent of Manaus’ population was infected by the virus during Brazil’s disastrous first wave last year, which should have given it one of the highest levels of immunity in the world.

But despite this, Manaus has suffered a resurgence in infections blamed on the P1 variant – with hospitals running out of oxygen last month and record numbers of burials taking place in the city.

As healthcare services ‘collapsed’ under the strain of the new variant, one expert described the city as a ‘suffocation chamber’ with non-Covid sufferers being evicted from their beds to make way for severely ill virus patients.

The new strain has also raised fears that existing vaccines will be less effective, although UK health chiefs say the jabs could be adapted quickly if necessary.

There has been a ban on travellers coming into the country from Brazil since mid-January – even if they come through another country – but it does not apply to UK citizens or people with residence visas. The six people arrived before the hotel quarantine policy started on February 15.

Will vaccines still work against it?

Scientists expect the current vaccines to prevent death and serious illness caused by the P1 variant, but they may be less effective than they were in trials.

This is because of its ability to dodge some of the immune cells made in response to other strains of the virus, explained above.

This may mean that the body makes fewer antibodies to tackle the virus, but studies on the South African variant have shown people still appear to make enough of the antibodies to make themselves immune. 

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and expert at the University of Bristol, said on BBC Breakfast today: ‘At the moment, the evidence we have suggests that certainly the South African variant, and potentially this Brazilian variant – which is somewhat similar – the vaccines that we have at the moment are less effective at reducing at least mild disease and possibly transmission.

‘We’re optimistic that the vaccines will continue to prevent severe disease but the evidence for that is still fairly limited.

‘I think all the manufacturers are now working on the preliminary steps, if you like, to revising the vaccines if that proves necessary.

‘But for the moment the vaccines that we’re using are very effective against the strains that are predominantly circulating in the UK and it’s important that people understand that that’s still the case because we do need people to get immunised as fast as possible to get things under control.’

Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna have all said they are making new versions of their vaccines to tackle updated variants of the virus – believed to include the Brazilian and South African strains.

The new version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is expected to be ready by autumn this year.

Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, struck a more concerned tone.

He told Times Radio: ‘When I look at the data on how well this variant gets neutralised, it’s not that all immunity is gone, it’s that the vaccines look so much less potent, so there’ll be more people who have low antibody responses where it can break through and get affected. It all comes back much harder.’   

Will the variant become dominant here?

It is very unlikely that the P1 variant will become dominant in the UK in the near future.

It carries the same mutation that makes the Kent strain spread so much faster than its predecessor – a change named N501Y – which means it is quick to transmit.

But this means it is probably equally fast-spreading as the Kent variant, and the UK variant is already dominant and widespread. 

For another strain to knock it off the top spot it must be even faster to transmit, which does not appear to be the case.

The possibility of it becoming dominant later, however, lies in its ability to ‘escape’ some people’s immune systems, as explained above.

If Britain gets herd immunity from a vaccine that stops the Kent variant spreading – which the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs appear to do – then a variant that is able to escape this immunity could have an advantage and become more common, potentially taking over as the dominant strain.

Speaking about the very similar South African variant in February, deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said: ‘You will know from what we saw before Christmas with the 117 variant [Kent] that, if it has a distinct transmissibility advantage over the predecessor, then it can establish itself very quickly indeed.

‘But early data on modelling of B1.351 does not suggest this is so – does not suggest that the South African variant has a distinct transmissibility advantage over our current virus.

‘And because of that there is no reason to think the South African variant will catch up, or overtake, our current virus in the next few months. And that’s a really important point.’ 

If vaccines wipe out or disable the Kent variant, however, the Brazilian or South African ones may develop and advantage and start to take over.

They are currently in direct competition with the Kent variant, but if that is destroyed by vaccination they could have a clear run at spreading among people who aren’t immune.



READ SOURCE

Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more