A Brazilian coronavirus variant that experts fear could make vaccines less effective may have first emerged in Britain in November, it emerged today as No10 was accused of ‘putting lives at risk’ by being too slow to close the borders.
The head of a new Government-led research unit dedicated to investigating Covid mutations today revealed there was two similar but genetically distinct variants from Brazil and that one of them has already been detected in Britain.
Professor Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College London, also admitted the mutated virus was introduced to the UK ‘some time ago’. But she did not reveal how widespread it was.
She later clarified the variant already spotted in the UK was not the same as the one that was detected in four travellers who flew from Manaus to Japan last week, which is known as 501Y.V3. Instead, the one spotted in the UK is believed to be 20B/S.484K and is understood to be circulating more widely across Brazil, where cases are spiralling.
Researchers tracking the spread of the constantly-mutating virus say the variant has been spotted in England at least seven times. The first positive sample was taken on November 14 at a Lighthouse Laboratory in Glasgow, MailOnline understands. Laboratories in Cheshire, Milton Keynes and Cambridge have also spotted the variant.
Labour today criticised the Government for having ‘no proper strategy in place’. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said No10’s ‘incompetence is putting lives at risk’.
He added: ‘It is terrible news that evidence of the highly infectious Covid variant from Brazil has been found in the UK. This is yet another example of the Conservatives being far too slow to protect our borders against Covid, closing the door after the horse has bolted.’
Ministers only imposed the South America travel ban yesterday, prompting fury from MPs who questioned why the decision came days after scientists first raised the alarm about the variant that had been spotted in Japan.
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 also said he was ‘not aware’ of any cases.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said today ministers had acted as ‘quickly as possible’ and that experts at PHE’s Porton Down laboratory were assessing the variant and ‘should have the results very shortly’. They insisted that the current evidence does not suggest the strain is deadlier or affects vaccines.
But Professor Barclay said both Brazilian variants have mutations that suggest ‘they might impact the way that antibodies work’. Sir Patrick Vallance stoked fears this week when he said SAGE doesn’t know if the jabs will beat the variant – but other top advisers believe it won’t render the vaccine useless but may make it slightly less effective.
It comes after a Chinese vaccine being trialled in Brazil yielded a surprisingly low effectiveness rate at just 50 per cent on Wednesday. But scientists today shot down speculation it could be the new variants making the jab less potent, pointing out that the study took place over summer when the new variants were not widespread.
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)
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, which sees random samples sent to the Government’s Lighthouse labs to be analysed by genomic sequencers tracking the evolution of coronavirus.
However, it can weeks or even months for the swabs to be processed in 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.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson told MailOnline that experts at Public Health England’s Porton Down laboratory were assessing the variant and ‘should have the results very shortly’.
They added: ‘Current evidence does not suggest that the strain causes any higher mortality rate or that it affects the vaccines or treatments.
‘As we have done throughout the pandemic PHE have worked hard to identify cases of new variant. Obviously they are doing that with this one. You can expect an update later today.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANTS?
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.
Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.
Is it in the UK? No. 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 another mutation named E484K, which 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.
Is it in the UK? .Yes, MailOnline understands it was first picked up on November 14 at a Government lab in Glasgow. it does not necessarily mean the patient was from Glasgow, as samples are sent to the nearest labs to be processed.
Why should we care? The variant shares the mutation named E484K, which opens the door to resistance against vaccines and previous infection.
It also appears to be highly transmissible and is believed to be responsible for Brazil’s case rates skyrocketing nationally.
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.
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.
The strain that emerged in Manaus was first detected by the Japanese 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 or other parts of Amazonas, which has a landmass six times the size of the UK.
That variant is believed to have evolved in the Manaus population as a way to get around ‘herd immunity’ in the city, according to Professor Barclay.
Studies have suggested that around 70 per cent of people in Manaus, situated in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, caught Covid-19 during the first wave of the virus in spring.
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, Professor Barclay said.
It may explain why, despite the majority of the 2million people of Manaus having natural immunity, the city is suffering an explosive second wave of the disease.
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.
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.
Not much is known about the Brazilian strain already in the UK, but it is thought to be behind the surge in cases nationally in the South American nation.
Brazil results show Chinese vaccine 50% effective – amid fears Brazilian strain could make jabs less potent
A coronavirus vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinovac has been found to be 50.4 per cent effective in Brazilian clinical trials.
The results – published on Wednesday – shows the jab is significantly less effective than previous studies had suggested.
And it means the vaccine only scrapes past the 50 per cent mark needed to seal regulatory approval.
Scientists said the new Brazilian variants ravaging the South American country were not the blame for the 50 per cent figure because the the ‘timings don’t work’.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘The trial would have started before the variant was widespread. It is also a very different vaccine to others so it might well just not be so good.
‘Antibody pressure could have caused the mutant but the same type of mutants, that are better at transmitting, have occurred elsewhere too so I am not sure it is the only answer.
‘A single residue change would not be enough to totally evade an antibody response normally. But it could be part of the reason for its rise.’
The Chinese vaccine is one of two that the Brazilian government has pre-ordered. It works by using dead Covid particles to expose the body to the virus without risk of falling ill.
Last month, Turkish researchers trialling the Sinovac vaccine said they found it to be 91.25 per cent effective, while Indonesia, said it was 65.3 per cent effective. Both were interim results from late-stage trials.
It’s difficult to compare the effectiveness of vaccines trialled in different countries because the criteria used in studies varies wildly, as does the number of volunteers enrolled.
Professor Barclay suggested this mutation occurred separately, elsewhere in Brazil, in an area with high prevalence which allowed it to transmit freely between people and rapidly evolve.
Britain has banned all travel from South America, Portugal, Panama and Cape Verde in a bid to stop the variants from wreaking havoc in the UK. Officials here are already trying to bring the super-infectious Kent variant under control.
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.
Reacting to news of the Brazil variant in the UK, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said: ‘It is terrible news that evidence of the highly infectious Covid variant from Brazil has been found in the UK.
‘This is yet another example of the Conservatives being far too slow to protect our borders against Covid, closing the door after the horse has bolted.
‘The utter chaos around airport testing, travel restrictions and quarantine is the fault of the Government. They have no proper strategy in place and this incompetence is putting lives at risk.’
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 two nurses gets re-infected with mutation months later and suffer WORSE symptoms
Two Brazilian nurses who fought off coronavirus and got reinfected with one of the country’s new variants has sparked fears the mutation could hamper immunity.
The first woman, an 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.
The second case was a 37-year-old health worker in the Northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte who tested positive twice, 116 days apart.
Researchers have ruled out the possibility of her initial infection lying dormant in her body because genomic sequencing shows she was ill with two different strains of Covid.
The woman first tested positive for a strain of Covid from B.1.1.33 lineage, one of the original versions of Covid to become widespread in the country, on June 17 last year.
She presented mild symptoms such as a headache, runny nose, diarrhea, and muscle pain, according to the case report by the Oswaldo Cruz Institute.
Four months later, on October 11, the patient presented with more severe headaches, loss of smell and taste, and fatigue.
Genomic sequencing showed the woman had become reinfected with a B.1.1.28 virus containing the mutation E484K, which is feared to be resistant to immune responses to older versions of Covid.
It’s unclear whether the mutated variant was the one found in the UK or if it was the strain that emerged in Manaus and was first detected in Japan.
Brazil ‘collapses’ under Covid as new variant sees epidemic surge: Relatives are forced to supply oxygen for patients, doctors decide who gets to breathe and Amazon’s largest city turns into a ‘suffocation chamber’
At one hospital in Manaus, a despairing relative carried an oxygen tank for his own mother-in-law just to help her breathe for another two hours – with one expert describing the city as a ‘suffocation chamber’.
Infections have soared to record levels in Brazil with the new variant feared to be the dominant strain in the state of Amazonas and described by one expert as ‘very probably’ more contagious than the previous type.
The variant has already been detected as far afield as Japan and spooked UK ministers into shutting down travel from the whole of South America, after another new strain was blamed for a dramatic surge in cases in Britain.
In Manaus, whose mass graves became a symbol of the first wave of the pandemic in Brazil, cemeteries are again burying record number of patients as the new strain causes a total ‘collapse’ of the healthcare system.
The virus was so rife during the first wave that one study suggested more than 70 per cent of Manaus’s population had been infected – raising fears that the new strain has evaded any immunity acquired from earlier infections.
In the latest outbreak, hundreds of patients are being airlifted to other states while some non-Covid sufferers are being evicted from their beds to make way for those in greater need.
Doctors and relatives have described ‘nightmare’ scenes of medical workers breaking down in tears. And with nearly 500 people still waiting for beds in Manaus, some elderly virus sufferers are being left to die at home.
Heartbreaking: Relatives of patients being treated at the 28 de Agosto hospital in Manaus share a tearful hug as the healthcare system in the Amazon’s largest city faces ‘collapse’ and a dire shortage of oxygen
Emergency: Healthcare workers transport a 77-year-old patient on a stretcher at a Manaus hospital after he came down with coronavirus symptoms, as a new strain which is feared to be more contagious spreads across the Amazon
Overwhelmed: Gravediggers wearing green and yellow hazmat suits bury a foil-wrapped coffin at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery in Manaus, with mourning relatives having to queue to bury their dead
A municipal healthcare worker covers the body of an 84-year-old Brazilian who died at home during the deadly outbreak
An oxygen cylinder is wheeled into the Getulio Vargas hospital amid drastic shortages of the substance needed to treat coronavirus patients suffering breathing problems
Cases in Brazil are at their highest level ever, with more than 360,000 in the last week alone, while the daily death rate is hovering around 1,000 for the first time since the first wave peaked in the Southern Hemisphere winter
As the oxygen crisis mounts, Brazil’s health minister Eduardo Pazuello said a plane full of medical supplies would arrive on Friday, followed by four others, but it was not clear whether this would be enough to fill the gap.
The city has ‘run out of oxygen and some health centers have become a type of suffocation chamber,’ said Jessem Orellana from the Fiocruz-Amazonia scientific investigation institute.
The oxygen provider in Manaus, White Martins, said it was considering diverting some of its supply from neighbouring Venezuela – while military personnel delivered 400 oxygen cylinders to Amazonas in five days.
At the Hospital Universitario Getulio Vargas, health workers took empty cylinders to the oxygen provider in the hope there would be some to retrieve.
Patients waited anxiously in the hospital as oxygen arrived in time to save some, but too late for others. In echoes of the worst days of the crisis in Europe, doctors were having to decide which patients to treat.
‘Yes, there is a collapse in the health care system in Manaus,’ the health minister said. ‘The line for beds is growing by a lot – we have 480 people waiting now. ‘We are starting to remove patients with less serious [conditions] to reduce the impact.’
Harrowing accounts were emerging of patients who died with no oxygen, with one grieving relative telling Globo: ‘You have no idea what it was like… the shouting, people were dying. Even health professionals, everyone was crying.’
‘The oxygen stopped, the patients were dying on the stretchers and the nurses did not know what to do,’ another relative said.
The new variant, described by the WHO as ‘worrying’, is feared to be more contagious and to have spread throughout Brazil and possibly further – with Britain shutting down travel from South America on Thursday.
In a move that prompted consternation in Portugal, transport secretary Grant Shapps said travel from the EU nation would also be halted because of its links with Brazil, although there are exemptions for truck drivers.
Cases in Brazil are at their highest level ever, with more than 360,000 in the last week alone, while the daily death rate is hovering around 1,000 for the first time since the first wave peaked in the Southern Hemisphere winter.
At least one cemetery in Manaus, a city of 2.2million people, had mourners queuing up to enter and bury their dead, with Brazilian artists and football teams joining the cry for help.
According to official figures, Manaus on Wednesday saw a fourth straight day of record burials – 198, with 87 of them deaths from Covid-19.
A woman is comforted outside a Manaus hospital as armed personnel keep order during a disastrous outbreak in the city
Medical workers wearing white hazmat suits examine the body of 53-year-old Shirlene Morais Costa, who died after suffering coroanvirus symptoms at home in Manaus
A tiny stretcher brings in a baby suspected of having Covid-19 at the HRAN hospital in the federal capital Brasilia on Thursday
Vitor Cabral comforts his wife Raissa Floriana after her father was hospitalised with Covid-19 at the 28 de Agosto hospital
Hospitals in Manaus admitted few new Covid-19 patients on Thursday, suggesting many will suffer from the disease at home, and some will likely die.
Park of the Tribes, a community of more than 2,500 indigenous people on the outskirts of Manaus, went more than two months without any resident showing Covid-19 symptoms.
In the past week, 29 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, said Vanda Ortega, a volunteer nurse in the community. Two went to urgent care units, but no one yet has required hospitalization.
‘We’re really very worried,’ said Ortega, who belongs to the Witoto ethnicity. ‘It’s chaos here in Manaus. There isn’t oxygen for anyone.’
The crisis has prompted the government in Amazonas to transport 235 patients who depend on oxygen to five other states and the federal capital Brasilia.
‘I want to thank those governors who are giving us their hand in a human gesture,’ Amazonas governor Wilson Lima said at a news conference on Thursday.
‘All of the world looks at us when there is a problem [with] the Earth’s lungs,’ he said, using a poetic term for the Amazon. ‘Now we are asking for help. Our people need this oxygen.’
Governors and mayors throughout the country offered help amid a flood of social media videos in which distraught relatives of Covid-19 patients in Manaus begged for people to buy them oxygen.
A woman cries during a protest outside the 28 Agosto hospital in Manaus, where authorities are planning to transport scores of patients to other states and the federal capital Brasilia
Cemetery workers carry the remains of 89-year-old Abilio Ribeiro, who died of the coronavirus, into a grave in Manaus
Military police officers patrol the streets in Manaus after a 7pm curfew was imposed to tackle the crisis in the Amazonian city
Amazonas authorities have even appealed to the United States to send a military transport plane to Manaus with oxygen cylinders, a Brazilian congressman said.
But there are growing demands Brazil’s federal government to do more, with president Jair Bolsonaro under pressure to act after long downplaying the dangers of Covid-19.
Federal prosecutors in Manaus have asked a local judge to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to step up its support, saying that an air force plane for oxygen transportation ‘needs repair, which brought a halt to the emergency influx’.
Local authorities recently called on the federal government to reinforce Manaus’ stock of oxygen, while the air force said it was deploying two planes to transport patients.
During the first wave of the crisis, Manaus consumed a maximum 30,000 cubic metres of oxygen per day, but now the need has more than doubled to nearly 70,000 cubic metres, according to White Martins.
‘Due to the strong impact of the Covid -19 pandemic, the consumption of oxygen in the city increased exponentially over the last few days in comparison with a volume that was already extremely high,’ White Martins said. ‘Demand is much higher than anything predictable and… continues to grow significantly.’
The company added that Manaus’ remote location presents challenging logistics, requiring additional stocks to be transported by boat and by plane.
Governor Lima – once seen as an ally of Bolsonaro – has also decreed more health restrictions, including the suspension of public transport and a curfew between 7pm and 6am.
Lima said the state was ‘in the most critical moment of the pandemic’ as he announced the 10-day curfew beginning on Friday, saying that ‘we are in a war operation’.
‘Here there aren’t any empty beds left, any oxygen tanks, nothing – all we have left is faith,’ Manaus resident Luiza Castro said.
A struggling patient is transported by medical workers at the Getulio Vargas hospital in Manaus where health workers have been taking empty cylinders to a local oxygen provider in the hope there would be some available
A man breaks down outside the 28 de Agosto hospital as Manaus faces a shortage of bed space and oxygen supplies
A man walks on an empty street in Manaus after the governor of Amazonas imposed the curfew to curb the infection rate
Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army captain often compared to Donald Trump, has raged against lockdowns and described the virus as a ‘little flu’, laughing off the dangers even when he himself was infected with the disease.
He has also flouted social distancing by appearing at rallies of his supporters, and touted the unproven anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19.
Felipe Naveca, an expert studying coronavirus mutations in Amazonas, said the new strain was ‘very probably’ more contagious than the original virus, just like new variants found in Britain and South Africa.
The worsening situation in Manaus was not due only to one variant, he added, warning that authorities were expecting a rise in virus cases due to end-of-year parties.
‘We need urgent support from the population to reduce the transmission and slow down the virus’s evolution,’ Naveca said.
Experts worry new mutations could eventually show resistance to the vaccines developed to combat the original strain.
However, ‘right now there’s no evidence that this line prejudices the vaccine’s response,’ Naveca said, and Brazil aims to start its vaccination campaign sometime this month.
There is concern, though, the new variant could already have spread throughout Brazil, and it has been detected as far afield as Japan.
Brazil has had 8.3million confirmed infections and 207,000 deaths in total. The number of fatalities is second only to the United States.