What are the India, Brazil, South Africa and UK variants?
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A coronavirus variant, first identified in India, is causing a spike in case in some parts of the UK and experts are worried.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said evidence suggests it is more transmissible than even the Kent variant that has dominated the UK.
Although the next step of unlocking can still happen on 17 May in England, he said it could pose “serious disruption” to the final removal of restrictions planned in June.
There are a few “India” variants, but one called B.1.617.2 appears to be spreading more quickly than the other two in the UK.
Surge testing is being deployed in some areas, including Bolton and Blackburn, to identify these infections – but it may not be stopping the spread.
Over-18s can now book a Covid jab in parts of Lancashire after the Indian variant was found there.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced second jabs for all over-50s (and the clinically vulnerable) in England are now being brought forward. Second doses will come eight weeks after the first, rather than 11-12 weeks.
There are thousands of different variants of Covid circulating across the world.
Viruses mutate all the time and most changes are inconsequential. Some even harm the virus. But others can make the disease more infectious or threatening – and these mutations tend to dominate.
Those with the most potentially concerning changes are called “variants of concern” and kept under the closest watch by health officials, and include:
There is no evidence that any of them cause much more serious illness for the vast majority of people.
As with the original version, the risk remains highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.
But a virus being more infectious and equally dangerous will in itself lead to more deaths in an unvaccinated population.
The India variant is “more transmissible” than the UK/Kent one, said England’s Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty.
“We expect, over time, this variant to overtake and come to dominate in the UK.”
The advice to avoid infection remains the same for all strains: wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a face covering and be vigilant about ventilation.
The India, UK, South Africa and Brazil variants have all undergone changes to their spike protein – the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.
The India variant has some potentially important ones (such as L452R) that might make it spread more easily.
There is currently insufficient evidence to indicate it causes more severe disease or might make current vaccines less effective, say UK officials.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, has classified another, similar variant that is also circulating in India – called B.1.617 – as a variant of concern.
One mutation, called N501Y, shared by the UK, Brazil and South Africa variant seems to make the virus better at infecting cells and spreading.
Some experts think the UK/Kent strain may be up to 70% more infectious – although research by Public Health England suggested it’s between 30% and 50%.
The South Africa and Brazil variants also have a key mutation, called E484K, that may help the virus evade antibodies, key parts of the immune system which help bodies fight off infection.
Experts recently found a small number of cases of the UK variant that have this change too.
Current vaccines were designed for earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work, albeit potentially less well.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said early lab data suggested the vaccines were effective against the India variant.
One recent study suggests the Brazilian variant may resist antibodies in people who’ve already had Covid and should therefore have some immunity.
Some early results suggest the Moderna vaccine is effective against the South Africa variant, although the immune response triggered may be weaker and shorter-lived.
Experts are confident existing vaccines can be redesigned to better tackle emerging mutations.
The UK government has a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, and has pre-ordered 50 million doses.
Depending on how variants continue to develop, these could potentially be used to offer a booster vaccine to older or clinically vulnerable people later in the year.