The Brazil ‘variant of concern’ detected in the UK could cause reinfection in up to 61% of people who previously had coronavirus, a study suggests.

The P1 variant, which has been found in six Britons, is also 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than the normal strain of the virus, scientists say.

The results are based on the impact of the variant in Manaus, the Brazilian city where it was first detected in December, and may not indicate its potential to spread in the UK.

Experts sought to find out why Manaus suffered another huge wave at the start of this year after more than two thirds of its population had Covid anti-bodies by October 2020.

Scientists from Imperial College, Oxford and the University of Sao Paolo tracked the disease and found P1 evaded 25% to 61% of protective immunity from previous infection.

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Dr Nuno Faria, reader in viral evolution at Imperial, told a briefing: ‘If 100 people were infected in Manaus last year, somewhere between 25 and 61 of them are susceptible to reinfection with P1.’

He said more work was needed on patterns that might occur in other countries, adding: ‘We know that vaccines are effective and they can protect us from infection and from disease and death.

‘This is a period to be optimistic about the future. The more we know about the virus, the better we’re able to protect against it and I think there’s no concluding evidence to suggest at this point that the current vaccines won’t work against P1.’

The study also found that the proportion of Covid cases that had the P1 variant grew from zero to 87% in about eight weeks.

It comes after the number of weekly registered coronavirus deaths in England and Wales has fallen by more than a quarter to the lowest level since the start of the year.

There are fears the UK ‘may go backwards’ over a missing case of the Brazil strain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday that the search for the sixth case has been narrowed down to 379 households in the south east. Five of the six people in England and Scotland who tested positive for the strain quarantined at home in line with Covid-19 regulations, but one person did not leave their details so could not be contacted by Test and Trace.

Chairwoman of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, Sharon Peacock, said the current study could not be used to speculate on the effectiveness of vaccines or how things will ‘pan out in other countries including the UK’.

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‘At the present time I don’t believe there’s any threat to our vaccination strategy, or likely effectiveness,’ she said.

‘I think what it reflects is the fact that… what these variants will mean is that the vaccine manufacturers will be looking to make adaptations to the vaccine so that people can have boosters and some of those adapted vaccines are already being tested in clinical studies.

‘So, I think it’s a note of optimism, but also a note that we need to go forward and work with vaccine developers to ensure that over time we have vaccines that are effective for our population.’

Experts do not so far believe that the P1 variant is more transmissible than the Kent variant – the dominant strain in the UK which is also more infectious than the original.

They said six was a ‘low number’ and that multiple introductions of the variant would be needed for it to take off in the UK.

Dr Thomas Mellan, from Imperial, said researchers have found a somewhat increased risk of death with P1 in Manaus, but this was in a city with ‘substantial healthcare failure’ such as a lack of oxygen.

Boris Johnson has played down the threat of the variant amid criticism of the Government’s border measures.

He moved to reassure the public yesterday, saying his roadmap out of lockdown would still be ‘irreversible’ and there was no reason to believe vaccines wouldn’t be effective against P1 cases.

Confidence in the UK’s approved jabs was given a boost today after a Public Health England (PHE) study found that protection against developing symptomatic Covid-19 in the over-70s was around 60% for both Oxford and Pfizer after a single dose.

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The study also found that among the over-80s the vaccines offered more than 80% protection against hospital admission

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the findings were ‘stunning’, and this was for two reasons.

‘First of all, because these data come from the hardest group to protect – those who are the frailest, the oldest adults in our population – and we’re seeing an 80% reduction in hospitalisation in that group, which is stunning,’ he said.

‘Second… both of the vaccines performed exactly the same, there was no daylight between them.

‘We’ve had all this difficulty with communication, particularly around Europe, with uncertainty about the evidence, whereas in the UK we’ve been rolling out both vaccines in the confidence that they would both give high levels of protection.

‘And that’s absolutely what we’ve seen now in this real-world evidence – that whether you’ve had a Pfizer vaccine or the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, you have very high levels of protection.’

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