Anxiety is growing about a coronavirus variant, first identified in India, that appears to be spreading in the UK.
The concern is that certain new variants of the virus, like this one, may be able to spread more easily, make people sicker, or overpower vaccines.
What is happening with the India variant in the UK?
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.
Sources say it is now being seen in lots of places, with few cases linked to travel, and numbers have been “grossly underestimated”.
Surge testing is being used 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.
What do we know about the different variants?
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:
- An India variant (B.1.617.2) of which more than 1,000 have been seen in the UK
- The UK or Kent variant (also known as B.1.1.7) is prevalent in Britain – with more than 200,000 cases identified – and has spread to more than 50 countries and appears to be mutating again
- The South Africa variant (B.1.351) has been identified in at least 20 other countries, including the UK
- The Brazil variant (P.1) has spread to more than 10 other countries, including the UK
Are they more dangerous?
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 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.
How are the mutants behaving?
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.
Will vaccines still work against variants?
Current vaccines were designed for earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work, albeit potentially less well.
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.
Do variants mean booster jabs are more likely?
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.