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How worrying are the varieties in the UK, South Africa and Brazil?

By Michelle Roberts
Health Editor, BBC News online


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New variants of coronavirus are emerging that are more contagious than the original that started the pandemic.

Researchers are quickly studying these mutated versions to understand what threat they pose.

What are these new varieties?

Experts’ concerns are currently focused on a small number of new variants of coronavirus:

  • ONE

    UK variant that has become dominant in large parts of the UK and has spread to more than 50 other countries

  • A South African variant that has also been found in at least 20 other countries, including the United Kingdom
  • A new variant from Brazil

It is not unexpected that new varieties have been developed – all viruses mutate when they make new copies of themselves to spread and thrive.

There are many thousands of different versions or variants of Covid circulating.

Most of these differences are irrelevant. A few can even be detrimental to the survival of the virus. But some can make it more contagious or threatening.

How serious is this?

It is suspected that the variants in the UK, South Africa and Brazil could be much more contagious or easy to catch than previous versions.

All three have undergone changes in their spike protein – this is the part of the virus that binds to human cells.

As a result, these variants appear to be better at infecting cells and spreading.

Experts believe that the British or “Kent” strain originated in September and can be up to 70% more transmissible or contagious, although recent research from Public Health England puts it between 30% and 50%. It is this variant that has driven the recent lockdowns around the UK.

The South African variant emerged in October and has more potentially important changes in the spike protein than the British variant.

It has one of the same mutations as the British, plus two more that researchers believe may disrupt vaccine effectiveness more. One of these can help the virus avoid parts of the immune system called antibodies.

The UK has introduced a ban on direct flights from South Africa and restrictions on flights to the country. Anyone who has traveled there recently and anyone they have been in contact with is asked to quarantine immediately.

The Brazil variant originated in July and was recently discovered in four travelers who arrived in Japan from Brazil. It has three key mutations in the tip protein that make it similar to the South African.

The British government has announced a ban on flights from South America and Portugal as a result of this development.

Will vaccines still work?

The current vaccines were designed around previous variants, but researchers are convinced that they still have to work against the new ones, but perhaps not quite as well.

Lab studies are underway to verify this.

Vaccines train the body to attack several parts of the virus, though not just these sections of the spike protein.

In the future, variants may arise that are again more different.

Even in the worst case, the vaccines could be redesigned and fine-tuned to be a better match – in a matter of weeks or weeks or months if needed, experts say.

As with influenza vaccines, where a new shot is given each year to account for changes in circulating influenza virus, something similar can happen to coronavirus.

Are they more dangerous?

There is currently no evidence that any of them cause more serious illness.

Measures such as washing hands, keeping distance from other people and wearing face clothing still help prevent infections, and because the new varieties spread more easily, it is important to pay extra attention.

What is being done about it?

Several variants will emerge.

Researchers around the world are looking for new varieties that will be closely studied and monitored.

Researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute say they are analyzing a new variant that e.g. Is different from the UK and South Africa.

Britain’s vaccine development minister Nadhim Zahawi says measures have already been taken to produce a new wave of vaccines if needed.

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