Many more cases of Brazil Covid variant likely in the UK already, warns expert
IT'S likely there could be more cases of the Brazilian Covid variant already in the UK, a leading expert has warned.
Health bosses have identified six cases of the Manaus mutation, known as P1, in the UK – three in England and three in Scotland.
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But Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, admits there could be more going undetected.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning. the expert explained that his team are currently sequencing 20,000 tests a week.
It's equivalent to around 20 per cent of positive tests from across the country, which have been selected at random.
He said: "For that reason, we’re working closely with Public Health England to keep increasing the fraction of all positive tests that we read the genomes of.
"The hope being that as case numbers continue to go down and our capacity for sequencing continues to go up we could be capturing a larger fraction of all the infections."
Pressed on how concerned Brits should be about the variant, which was first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus, Dr Barrett said: "I don't think there’s very strong evidence that it's more transmissible than the current widely circulating variant in the UK – the B117 that was first seen in Kent late last year.
"I think there is some laboratory based evidence that it is partially less neutralised by vaccines.
"We don’t know how much of a difference that will make in the real world, it’s very difficult so far to get data from real world situations with vaccines but it is that sense that is a bit of a risk that it might be less well neutralised.
"We certainly don’t think it’ll be completely able to escape vaccination but, because we don’t know for certain, I think that’s why the government is taking a very cautious approach to stamp out any observations of this variant."
What are the two different Brazilian Covid strains?
The first variant from Brazil was detected in travellers from the South American country to Japan.
It is the one that experts are most concerned about and said to be behind the surge in cases in Brazil.
Experts say that it is a descendant of lineage B.1.1.28 and contains a unique constellation of lineage defining mutations including E484K – the South African variant.
The emergence of variants with multiple shared mutations is what is raising concern among scientists as they could potentially be more transmissible and there is a risk of reinfection for people who have already fought off Covid.
The second variant is a different descendant of the same lineage – B.1.1.28, but doesn’t contain a constellation of mutations.
It does differ from its ancestral lineage in that it carries the South Africa mutation E484K.
P.2 has been reported to be spreading in the state of Rio de Janeiro and is associated with two independant reinfection cases in Brazil.
It does not contain the other important mutations carried by lineage P.1.
It comes as health bosses continue their hunt for a mystery Brit infected with the mutant Brazilian strain.
A nationwide search was launched after the person didn't put down the right information on their forms after flying into the UK.
Experts fear it will be harder to control the spread of worrying variants once kids return to schools next week.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night urged the person to contact authorities.
Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said the mystery UK case was probably tested on February 12 or 13, possibly via a home postal kit.
But the online form was not properly completed.
The Royal Mail has been asked to help identify where the kit was sent from.
Dr Hopkins said PHE was taking a "belt-and-braces approach" to tracking down the mystery carrier.
She said: "As we start to release national restrictions with the schools going back on March 8, that is where the risk starts to increase.
"That's why we are clamping down on a number of measures to prevent the spread of these variants."
Three of the cases are Scottish residents who flew to Aberdeen from Brazil via Paris and London, who all tested positive while self-isolating.
Other passengers who were on the same flight to Aberdeen are now being traced.
The other two cases in England are from the same household in South Gloucestershire after one person returned from Brazil on February 10 – just days before the Government's hotel quarantine rule came into force.
Two other people in the same household have also tested positive but are not currently included in the UK case total of six, while tests on their type of coronavirus continue.
Officials are searching for passengers who were on the Swiss Air flight LX318 from Sao Paulo to Heathrow, via Zurich, which landed on February 10.
MPs and experts have blasted lax border controls for allowing the variant to come in.
Ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said checks had been "piecemeal".
And Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper said the detection of the Manaus variant from Brazil "shows the weaknesses in the Government's Covid border measures".
It comes as Imperial College London research suggests the bug is up to 2.2 times more transmissible than the original.
And vaccines may be up to 61 per cent less effective against it.
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