Brazilian Covid variant is already in the UK, leading British scientist reveals

A Brazilian coronavirus variant that is feared could reinfect survivors is already in the UK and has been here for ‘some time’, a leading scientist confirmed today. 

Professor Wendy Barclay, who is head of a new Government-led research unit studying Covid mutations, said the strain was probably introduced to the UK ‘some time ago’.

The Imperial College London virologists also revealed there were two different types of Brazilian variants, and that only one had been spotted in Britain. 

She did not reveal the differences between the two, but it’s believed both share mutations on their spike proteins which make them more infectious and may help them get past immunity from vaccines and older versions of the virus. 

It’s not clear yet when the first case of the Brazilian variant was spotted in the UK, but MailOnline understands it could have been as far back as November. 

Professor Barclay said: ‘There are two different types of Brazilian variants. One of them has been detected [in the UK] and one of them has not.

‘In the databases, if you search the sequences, you will see that there is some evidence for variants from around the world, and I believe including the Brazilian one, which probably was introduced some time ago.’  

It comes despite Public Health England claiming as recently as yesterday it had not spotted any cases of a Brazilian strain. Earlier this morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he was ‘not aware’ of any cases. 

There are mounting fears that Covid survivors may not be immune to the Brazilian variant, as scientists believe it sparked an explosive second wave in a city in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest believed to have achieved ‘herd immunity’. 

A Brazilian coronavirus variant that is feared could reinfect survivors is already in the UK and has been here for 'some time', a leading scientist confirmed today (stock image)

A Brazilian coronavirus variant that is feared could reinfect survivors is already in the UK and has been here for 'some time', a leading scientist confirmed today (stock image)

A Brazilian coronavirus variant that is feared could reinfect survivors is already in the UK and has been here for ‘some time’, a leading scientist confirmed today (stock image)

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread 

Professor Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, revealed there were two different types of Brazilian variants, and that only one had been spotted in Britain

Professor Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, revealed there were two different types of Brazilian variants, and that only one had been spotted in Britain

Professor Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, revealed there were two different types of Brazilian variants, and that only one had been spotted in Britain

MailOnline understands Brazilian strain entered the UK in November and may have been spotted in seven British people already. 

It was believed to have been picked up by routine testing by Public Health England, which sends random samples to genomic sequencers to track the evolution of coronavirus.

However, it can weeks or even months for the samples to be sent to PHE’s laboratories, put through the sequencing process and added to the national database.

For example, the Kent strain of the virus which triggered Britain’s winter wave was tracked back to a patient in Kent in September. But it was only actually detected and announced in December.  

Up until today, it was thought there was only one Brazilian variant.

Both variants fall under the B.1.1.28 lineage of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid. 

Scientists tracking the constantly-evolving pathogen say they have very subtle differences that make them genetically different – but both carry a mutation on the crucial spike protein.

The genetic mutation, called E484K, changes the shape of the spike protein on the outside of the virus in a way that might make it less recognisable to an immune system trained to spot versions of the virus that don’t have the mutation, scientists say. E484K is thought to change the virus in a way which makes it more difficult for antibodies to bind to it and prevent it entering the body.

Antibodies are a part of the immune system that can cripple viruses or attach to them and flag them up as targets for other killer white blood cells.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANTS? 

Up until today, it was thought there was only one Brazilian variant.

Both variants fall under the B.1.1.28 lineage of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid. 

Scientists tracking the constantly-evolving pathogen say they have very subtle differences that make them genetically different – but both carry a mutation on the crucial spike protein.  

So far there is only publicly-available data for one strain:

Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1

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

Is it in the UK? Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of B.1.1.248, but this doesn’t rule it out completely.

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.

Will our vaccines still protect us?

There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.

The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation.

Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in  a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.

They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.

And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines. 

The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible.’

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In this case, the part of the spike protein that gets changed is called the ‘receptor binding domain’, or the RBD, which the virus uses to latch onto the body.

It comes amid fears the Brazilian strains can reinfect Covid surviors. In Manaus, the capital city of Brazil’s vast Amazonas state, 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. 

It is the second time the city of 2million people has been ravaged by the disease after recording 100 deaths a day through spring. At that time drone images showed the digging of mass graves in a forest on the outskirts of the city.

The virus was so rife that some researchers believed Manaus had achieved ‘herd immunity’ after one study suggested more than 70 per cent of the population had been infected.  

Meanwhile, a Brazilian nurse who fought off coronavirus in spring got reinfected with the country’s new variant five months later in October, with her symptoms being worse the second time. 

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.  

In response to the new variant, Britain has banned all travel from South America, Portugal, Panama and Cape Verde in a bid to stop it from wreaking havoc in the UK. Officials here are already trying to bring a super-infectious variant, originally found in Kent, under control.

Researchers in Britain have told MailOnline it’s ‘entirely possible’ there are already cases in the UK but Public Health England said it had not yet detected any. 

Asked if the Brazilian strain was in the UK now, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: ‘Not as far as we are aware, I think, at this stage. There haven’t been any flights that I can see from the last week from Brazil, for example.’

It was the Japanese who originally spotted the Brazilian strain – called B.1.1.248 – and sounded the alarm about its potential dangers. Experts found the strain during routine tests of arriving passengers in Tokyo.

It was discovered in four Brazilians who landed at Haneda airport on January 2, all of whom had recently come from Manaus of other parts of Amazonas, which has a landmass six times the size of the UK. 

Britain is now hoping to keep shut the variant out with its new South America travel ban which came into force at 4am this morning. 

No-one who has been in any of the listed countries in the previous 10 days will be granted entry.

The measures are even wider than had been expected – although British and Irish nationals will not be subject to the total block, and must merely isolate for 10 days.

But scientists fear the measures have come too late. Dr Mike Tildesley, an epidemiologist at Warwick University, told BBC Breakfast: ‘We always have this issue with travel bans of course, that we’re always a little bit behind the curve.

‘With Covid we need to remember that when you develop symptoms you could have been infected up to a couple of weeks ago.

‘So it’s really important that these travel bans come in quickly so that we can prevent any risk.

‘My understanding is that there haven’t really been any flights coming from Brazil for about the past week, so hopefully the immediate travel ban should really minimise the risk.’

He added that scientists will know ‘in the next few days’ whether the ban has had ‘a significant effect’.

Dr Tildesley added that although viruses mutate ‘all the time’, this usually results in ‘milder forms’ emerging ‘in order to survive better’.

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘If you have a very transmissible virus that also has a very high mortality rate then actually – and this is not meant to be flippant at all – but that’s not very good for the survival of the virus in a sense, if it kills its host.’

He added that if a vaccine-resistant variant emerges, jabs can be modified within ‘weeks rather than months’ to combat this.

Dr Tildesley said: ‘Over the longer term, it’s probably likely that we will get variants emerging where the vaccines won’t necessarily have the same effect.

‘And I will say that’s nothing to get massively panicked about – we do expect this, and this is what happens with flu all the time, that we have to develop a vaccine every year to protect against whatever virus strain is circulating.’

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, assured the public yesterday that there was no evidence any of the variants led to more severe disease or could get around the immune system. 

He told ITV’s Peston show: ‘There’s no evidence at all with any of these variants that it makes the disease itself more severe. 

‘So the changes that we’re seeing with the variants are largely around increased transmission.

‘[There’s] no evidence yet for the UK version that it makes a difference in terms of how the immune system recognises it, and if you’ve been exposed to the old variant or you’ve had a vaccine, it looks like that’s gonna work just as well with this new variant for the UK one.

‘The South African one and Brazilian one, we don’t know for sure. There’s a bit more of a risk that this might make a change to the way the immune system recognises it but we don’t know. Those experiments are underway.’

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that even if the mutation did affect the immune system it wasn’t likely to scupper existing vaccines completely.

He said: ‘We know where the mutations are. I think it’s fair to say we don’t have a good picture on how easily it spreads or how quickly it spreads. 

‘Some of the changes, not all, are in the spike protein. The only one we have good data on in terms of the ability to spread is the Kent strain. 

‘The changes to the spike mean that they could make it more difficult for antibodies to bind to. If there is an effect, and it’s a big if, I would assume it would reduce their [vaccines] efficacy not abolish it, it wouldn’t render it useless but it might not be effective.’ 

Fears grow over Brazilian Covid variant as 45-year-old nurse gets re-infected with mutation five months later and suffers WORSE symptoms 

A Brazilian nurse who fought off coronavirus and got reinfected with the country’s new variant has sparked fears the mutation could hamper immunity.

The variant, which today spooked ministers into banning all flights to the UK from South America, carries a mutation that may make the virus able to get past immunity developed from older versions of the virus.

The unnamed 45-year-old fell ill with the new variant in October — five months after she recovered from Covid caused by an older strain, and her symptoms were worse the second time.

Researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a science institute in Rio de Janeiro, warned that mutations on the new variant could increase the risk of reinfection.

They wrote that ‘viral evolutions may favour reinfections’, claiming recently spotted variants ‘have raised concern on their potential impact in infectivity and immune escape’.

The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation paper — which hasn’t been peer-reviewed by fellow scientists — last week reported the case of a woman in Salvador, Brazil, who got Covid a second time amid an outbreak of the new variant.

She had been diagnosed with coronavirus for the first time on May 26, 2020, when she had diarrhoea, muscle aches and general weakness.

She took an asthma steroid called prednisone and recovered within three weeks without any long-lasting problems, the researchers said.

But in October, she became ill again with similar symptoms – diarrhoea, headache, coughing and a sore throat – and again tested positive for coronavirus.

Her symptoms got even worse than they had been the first time around and she developed breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, muscle pains and insomnia. 

When the researchers compared her positive test samples from the two episodes they found that the latter one had mutations now known to be a key component of the Brazilian variant.

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