Another new coronavirus variant have been detected in the UK which has a mutation that may help it escape immunity.
There have so far been 16 cases of the new 'Variant Under Investigation', temporarily named B1.1.318, Public Health England revealed today.
The new variant was first detected on February 15 through genomic sequencing and officials began monitoring its spread on February 24.
It has the E484K mutation on its spike protein which is also found in the Brazilian and South African variants. Those two strains are also circulating in the UK.
The alteration changes the way the virus looks to the immune system, helping it to dodge antibodies. But antibodies are just one part of what gives Covid survivors and vaccinated patients protection against reinfection.
White blood cells play a crucial role in fighting off the virus and scientists say they are 'not substantially affected' by current mutated variants.
It means the current crop of vaccines should still be highly effective against strains with the E484K mutation.
PHE said it does not know if it spawned in the UK or was imported from another country. The agency now has four variants ‘under investigation’ and four more which it describes as ‘variants of concern’.
PHE now has four variants ‘under investigation’ and four more which it describes as ‘variants of concern’
They are the current dominant Kent strain, two imported from Brazil, the South African variant and one which is thought to have originated in Nigeria, as well as two others which cropped up in Bristol and Liverpool.
The new strain announced today does not feature the N501Y mutation that makes the virus spread more quickly.
Scienitsts have said previously that variants without this key change are unlikely to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant anytime soon because they won't have an 'evolutionary edge' over it.
This N501Y mutation, which is found on the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants, means it can bind to cells more easily and is more transmissible.
The lead researcher behind Oxford University's coronavirus jab warned earlier this week against becoming 'obsessed' with new variants, despite new versions cropping up around the globe every week.
He said his team were confident they their vaccine would be highly effective against all emerging strains and in the unlikely event one made it significantly weaker, the jab can easily be modified in a matter of weeks.
More proof Covid variants won't scupper vaccines: Crucial T cell immunity is NOT hampered by new strains
Immunity produced by white blood cells is 'not substantially affected' by mutated coronavirus variants, scientists have found.
Experts were concerned the current jabs might not work as well against the South African and Brazilian variants because they changed its shape.
Studies found disease-fighting proteins called antibodies were less effective in the face of the new strains, raising fears they would partially evade vaccine-triggered immunity and cause reinfections.
But they are only one type of immunity. New experiments have found white blood cells called T cells appear to work just as well against Covid variants as they do the original virus.
And they work just as well when produced by either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, which were both tested in the study.
Scientists at the University of California, San Diego said: 'The data presented here suggests that T cell responses are largely unaffected by the variants.'
They said the T cells, which tag onto the coronavirus and help to destroy it, might not completely stop infection but should prevent people getting seriously ill. This would mean that anyone who has already had Covid or a vaccine would get less sick the next time they were infected with the virus.
The researchers tested what happened when they mixed the coronavirus with the blood of people who had been vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
Specifically they measured two types of T cell in the blood, called CD4 and CD8.
CD4 are 'helper' cells which identify a viral infection and spark the rest of the immune system into action, and CD8 are 'cytotoxic' and they can destroy infected cells in the body.
These work alongside antibodies, which target the virus itself and wreck it directly.
They found that the T cells worked just as well when they were exposed to the old Wuhan variant of the virus, the Kent variant, the Brazilian variant or the South African one.
Previous studies found antibodies worked less well against the mutated strains, worrying scientists, but this gives reassurance that vaccines will still work in other ways.
Drug chiefs in the UK, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Singapore have confirmed that booster jabs to tackle mutated coronavirus variants will be fast-tracked and won't need to go through massive clinical trials.
Big vaccine-makers are already working on new versions of their Covid vaccines to tackle the South Africa and Brazil variants, which studies suggest may make the current jabs less effective than they were against earlier strains of the virus.
The first time around, the vaccines had to be trialled on tens of thousands of people for around six months and studies are still ongoing.
But for the boosters the same process won't have to be followed as long as the firms are only making minor tweaks to their original vaccines.
Proof of effectiveness and safety will be transferable from the earlier studies, UK regulator MHRA said, although small studies for updated safety information will be required.
This process will be based on a system that allows flu vaccines to be easily updated each year so they can adapt to the different strains that circulate each season.
'Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety,' said Christian Schneider, chief scientific officer at the MHRA.
'Should any modifications to authorised Covid-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that.
'The public should be confident that no vaccine would be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met.'
During a visit to Glasgow Lighthouse Lab, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: 'We will have a fast-track approach to safely approving future vaccines that work against a variant of Covid.
'The vaccine programme has clearly been a huge UK success story, and part of the reason that we have been able to develop the vaccines so far so quickly is because of the MHRA’s rigorous yet flexible approach, which has been based entirely on looking as quickly as possible at the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
'I’m delighted that they’re taking that same principled approach to the approval process for vaccines that may work against variants.'
The MHRA said the reason mass clinical trials are not necessary is that scientists can test how well a vaccine works on blood samples in a lab.
And because earlier versions of the vaccines have already gone through the entire process, they can see how this lab effectiveness translates to the real world.
Real-world data also proves that the vaccines the boosters are based on are safe and that they protect against coronavirus.
Any updates to vaccines should use almost exactly the same technology based on a slightly different version of the virus, to incorporate changes caused by mutations in the new variants.
All the current vaccines are based on the original coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan in 2019.
But the virus has mutated since then and lab studies suggest one big change – named E484K – has changed the virus in a way that helps it to evade immune cells that are only used to the older strains of the virus.
This makes reinfection more likely among people who have already had Covid, and makes vaccines slightly less effective.
AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, the makers of the three vaccines the MHRA has approved for use so far, have all said they are aiming to modify their jabs to cope with variants this year.
AstraZeneca, the maker of the Oxford vaccine, said it hopes its new vaccine will be ready by autumn.
MHRA chief executive Dr June Raine said there is no evidence that current vaccines are lacking effectiveness against known coronavirus variants.
She said: 'Since December last year we have all been concerned about the appearance of variants – Kent, South Africa, more recently Brazil – and therefore we’re well-prepared to look at, when it’s needed, updates to ensure the vaccines being used in citizens are fully effective.
'Our goal is to ensure the vaccine modifications in future that respond to the new variants can be available in the shortest possible time but without compromising in any way on safety, on quality and on effectiveness.
'What I would emphasise at the outset is that we don’t have evidence at the moment that the vaccines in use in the UK are significantly lacking in effectiveness but we are now well-prepared.'