The emergence of another new coronavirus strain is being tracked by scientists as efforts to increase targeted testing and suppress the spread of variants of concern are expanded.
Public Health England (PHE) revealed on Thursday that 16 cases of the variant, referred to as VUI-202102/04, were identified through genomic horizon scanning on February 15.
The variant, which is understood to have originated in the UK, was designated a “variant under investigation” (VUI) by PHE nine days later.
All people who have tested positive for the variant, and their contacts, have been traced and advised to isolate.
New Covid-19 variants regularly emerge and experts conduct frequent analysis to determine which are of concern or not.
The new findings mean scientists are now monitoring four VUIs and four “variants of concern” (VOC) in the UK.
PHE said the latest identified variant, also known as B.1.1.318, contains the E484K mutation, found in two other VUIs in the UK, but it does not feature the N501Y mutation that is present in all VOCs.
Health minister Lord Bethell said on Thursday that Britain was the most likely place in the world where a mutant variation of coronavirus will occur as it will happen in an area where there is “a high infection rate and a large amount of suppression of the virus by either a lockdown or a vaccine programme”.
Speaking in the Lords, he said the country “must be on the balls of its feet” to be ready for such “unhelpful news”.
Meanwhile, broadcaster and leading fertility expert Lord Winston warned the risk of a dangerous new variant against which there was no defence was “eventually likely to be inevitable”.
The resources will be deployed in the North Wembley area of Brent in the capital and the TS19 postcode area in Stockton-on-Tees, in County Durham, to suppress the variant’s potential spread, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
It follows last week’s announcement that surge testing would be deployed in Ealing and Redbridge in London to help control the same variant.
Surge testing began in south Gloucestershire on Monday where cases of the Manaus variant of coronavirus were discovered.
Six cases of this VOC, known as P1 and first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus, have been found in the UK – three in Scotland and three in England.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday that the search for a missing person infected with the variant had been narrowed down to 379 households in the south east of England.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Hancock said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will oversee a fast-track approach to approving new coronavirus jabs, after studies suggested variants may make vaccines less effective.
A study this week suggested that between 25% and 61% of people in Manaus who previously had Covid were susceptible to reinfection with the P1 variant.
Vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer and AstraZeneca are already working on new jabs to tackle variants in case they are needed.
Meanwhile, the Government said that a further 242 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, bringing the UK total to 124,025.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have been 145,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
As of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 6,573 lab-confirmed cases in the UK which brought the total to 4,201,358.