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2 Feb, 2021 12:50

UK Covid-19 variant has mutated again with some worrying new genetic changes, scientists say

UK Covid-19 variant has mutated again with some worrying new genetic changes, scientists say

A UK scientist who advises the government has warned of a “worrying” and “spontaneous” mutation of the British Covid-19 variant which may impact the efficacy of the vaccines currently in use.

“The mutation of most concern, which we call E484K, has also occurred spontaneously in the new Kent strain in parts of the country too,” Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told BBC radio on Tuesday morning. 

The new and perturbing E484K mutation had already been reported in a technical briefing published by Public Health England but had not been widely noticed outside of scientific circles.

“A limited number of B.1.1.7 VOC (variant of concern)...genomes with E484K mutation have been detected,” said the summary of the briefing.

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Dr. Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, said the mutation was worrying but not unexpected. 

“The acquisition [of the E484K mutation] may be due to recombination with one of the South African/Brazilian variant viruses that may have co-infected the same cell – as we see with different influenza viruses – but this is rarer with coronaviruses,” he explained.

The Kent strain, also widely referred to as the British variant, has been proven to be more contagious, while this new mutation may reduce the efficacy of the vaccines currently being administered around the UK.  

“If this E484K mutation is acquired by most of the UK B.1.1.7 variants – the recent reassurances from recent studies showing that the mRNA vaccines will still offer optimum protection against the original UK variant – may no longer apply,” Tang said.

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The E484K mutation has already been seen in the South African and Brazilian variants but while the mutation is likely to affect vaccine effectiveness, it is unlikely to make the current jab redundant. 

Studies conducted on the South African variant show the mutation is capable of evading parts of the immune response induced by natural infection or vaccination.

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