Cases of Bristol Covid variant hit 21 – but 'vaccines can stop severe disease'

CASES of the Bristol variant have hit 21 in England – but experts are confident that the vaccine roll out can "stop severe disease”.

The most recent data from Public Health England(PHE) states that the variant has been identified in at least four areas.

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Of those detected 15 have been found in Bristol and the South West, four in Manchester and two elsewhere in England – the location of which has not been disclosed.

The Bristol variant contains the E484K mutation, a genetic change also found in the South African and Brazilian variants.

Lab studies this week found that the Bristol variant could infect people who have already had Covid-19 or who have been vaccinated.

So far in the UK over 13 million people have received their first dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, with over half a million having had a second dose.

Studies found that the virus is more effective at evading both natural immunity triggered by antibodies and immunity supplied through vaccination.

However Dr David Matthews, virologist at the University of Bristol said the the only thing that matters is whether the vaccine stops people from going to hospital or not.

He said: "As far as we can tell, none of the viruses that are emerging can do the thing that you dread – which is that it can both evade the vaccine and still put people in hospital – because that's really the only thing we need to worry about.

"So they (the variants) are of concern, in the sense that we need to monitor the virus – because we need to know as soon as possible if a version of the virus has emerged that can evade the vaccine and still put people in hospital.

"But at the moment there's no evidence that people who have had the vaccine are getting hospitalised with new versions of the virus."

Another variant has also been identified in Liverpool, which has the same mutation as the one found in Bristol, taking the total number of cases with the new variants to 76.

The Bristol variant, like others, is a part of the evolution of the virus.

Dr Jonathan Stoye, group leader of the Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory at the Francis Crick Instituted said that the fact that the Bristol mutation may reduce immune response could be a danger.

What is the Bristol variant?

The Bristol variant is formally called VOC 202102/02

This is broken down to a"variant of concern" found in February 2021.

It was labelled a variant of concern – the fourth in the UK – on February 9 by the sub-sage group the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).

The Bristol variant was first discovered in the city, South West England.

It is a version of the widespread Kent variant – first identified in the UK in September – with an additional mutation known as the "E484K spike protein".

The Kent variant, thought to be the most dominant coronavirus version in the UK, is already known to be at least 50 per cent more transmissible.

The E484K mutation occurred spontaneously, according to gene sequencing by Public Health England.

Until this point the mutation had only been associated with the South African and Brazil variants.

He said: "We hear a lot about trying to keep the South African variants out but what appears to be happening in Bristol and Liverpool is that the same mutation is occurring, which might give these viruses the same properties as the viruses that we were trying to keep out.

"It is the same basic reason we're afraid that this virus will escape some of the immune response that is generated against both the vaccine strains and previous infections."

Sage expert Professor John Edmunds also today said that while the strain is a "real worry" it might not be as transmissible as the Kent variant.

He added: “Where it has an advantage, potentially at least, is that it may be able to reinfect people who have been previously infected or have been previously vaccinated – that’s the real worry with that particular virus.”

To contain the spread of infections from mutated variants, the Government has introduced surge testing in parts of Worcestershire, Bristol, south Gloucestershire, Manchester and London.

Some experts however say that even with best efforts, mutations of concern could spontaneously emerge elsewhere.

Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading said such mutations, like those seen in Bristol and Liverpool, could be seen anywhere.

He added: “That doesn't mean that it has escaped from either of those places.”

He highlighted that until new vaccines are available to deal with the variant then health officials need to “suppress them as much as we can”.

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