A NEW strain of the coronavirus from Brazil has potential to evade vaccines.
It's the third new variant to emerge in the past two months, adding to one identified in the UK, and another in South Africa.
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Britain now has three vaccines approved against the coronavirus, from drug giants Pfizer, AstraZeneca (Oxford's) and Moderna.
There are fears the new mutations will be able to dodge the immune system, even after vaccination or previous infection.
The UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance admitted “we don’t know for sure” if the vaccines being rolled out on the NHS will work on the strains from Brazil and South Africa.
He told ITV's Preston: “There’s a bit more of a risk that this might make a change to the way the immune system recognizes it but we don’t know.
"Those experiments are underway,” Sir Patrick said.
The vaccines being used in the UK work by instructing the body's own cells to produce spike proteins found on the surface of the virus.
The immune system spots these proteins and develops killer antibodies.
When the real virus comes along, the immune system has a memory of the "spike" on the surface, and is primed to attack it.
However a change in the shape of the spike protein makes it more difficult for the immune system to recognise the virus.
Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology, told The Sun: "With all three of the troublesome new variants there are changes to the shape of the spike protein on the surface of the virus, which is the target for the vaccines.
"The spike protein acts a bit like the virus’ key to unlock and enter our cells; some of the changes are in the bit of the spike that does the unlocking.
"There is concern that some of the changes found in these variants may interfere with the ability of antibodies to stick to the “key” and block it from working."
Prof Ravi Gupta, professor of microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said the variant from Brazil – called B.1.1.248 – has three key mutations in part of the virus called the spike receptor binding domain (RBD).
The mutations "largely mirror some of the mutations we are worried about it in the South African variant, hence the concern", she said.
"The SARS-CoV-2 RBD is one of the main targets for our immune defences and also the region targeted by vaccines and changes within this region are therefore worrisome," she said.
But she reassured that "vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible".
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs yesterday: "There are lots of questions we still have about that variant, we don't know for instance, any more than we know whether the South African variant is vaccine resistant."
He admitted: "We are concerned about the new Brazilian variant."
A troublesome mutation
The variant in Brazil has several mutations, including one called E484K, which is also found in the South African variant.
Speaking of the South African variant, Professor Francois Balloux, director of UCL Genetics Institute, said: "The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition.
"As such, it helps the virus SARS-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination."
But Prof Balloux said although it is possible the new variants will impact vaccines, "we shouldn’t make that assumption yet".
Pfizer recently discovered its Covid vaccine protect against a mutation in both the UK and South African variant, called N501Y.
However, the E484K has not yet been studied yet and so is still a cause of concern.
The CEO of Moderna says he believes the firm's coronavirus vaccine will be effective against the variants from the UK, South Africa or Brazil, MailOnline reported.
But even if that is the case, Moderna's vaccine is not expected to be ready for use in the UK until the spring.
Vaccines can be re-fashioned
The good news is Sir Patrick said it would be “relatively easy” to adapt vaccines if needed.
They can instead instruct the body to make spike proteins with resemblance to the new variants.
Sir Patrick has previously said the variants may weaken – but not "abolish" – the effect of vaccines.
Speaking about the South African variant, Sir Patrick told a Downing Street press conference on January 5 that a possible change in the virus shape in the variant “theoretically gives it a bit more risk of not being recognised” by the immune system.
But he added: “It’s worth remembering that when a vaccine is given you don’t just make one antibody against one bit, you make lots of antibodies against lots of different bits, and so it’s unlikely that all of that will be escaped by any mutations.
“But we don’t know yet.
“At the moment, you’d say the most likely thing is that this wouldn’t abolish vaccine effect. It may have some overall effect on efficacy but we don’t know.”
His comments were echoed by the deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam yesterday.
Prof Van-Tam told LBC Radio that the vaccines in use produce a “polyclonal response”, stimulating production of a range of antibodies against different parts of the virus.
“Therefore, the idea that a mutation of the virus would in one go outwit the whole of the vaccine is pretty low,” he said.
“So if we were to see an effect, it would be a small degradation rather than going off a cliff.”
Prof Van-Tam said his “hunch” is that they will not be “outwitted” by new variants for many months.
But he warned that the coronavirus behind the pandemic is unlikely to be eradicated and updated vaccines may need to be deployed on a regular basis, as happens with flu.
What is the new strain from Brazil?
The new strain was detected in Japan after four travellers returned from Brazil.
The mutation “emerged independently” from those detected in the UK and South Africa, according to virologist Professor Tulio de Oliveira.
He told the Telegraph initial analysis suggests all three variants share concerning characteristics linked to faster spread.
Prof de Oliveria, who is leading South Africa’s effort to understand the new strain , said: “We know that B.1.1.248 has one mutation that is shared with the variant in the UK and South Africa, and that's the mutation at position N501Y.
“This is one of the mutations that… is associated with fast transmission.”
Japan reported the mutation to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the country recorded a sharp rise in cases in recent weeks.
They have expanded their state of emergency to cover even more regions as the country records record numbers of infections.
Is the Brazil strain in the UK?
It's not yet known if the new strain from Brazil is present in the UK or not.
From next week, all international passengers coming into the UK will have to show a negative Covid test before they enter.
Passengers – including homecoming Brits – will have to get a test up to 72 hours before they travel and show a certificate to enter the country.
Test results must be shown at check-in with their airline, train company or ferry before they travel and those who refuse won’t be allowed to travel.
If someone does smuggle themselves into the UK they will be subject to a £500 fine.
What are the symptoms of the Brazil strain?
The Government haven't specified what the symptoms of the new strain from Brazil are.
However, experts have said it is characteristically similar to the other Covid mutations from the UK and South Africa.
The most common signs of Covid to look out for are a loss of taste and smell, a persistent cough, and a high temperature.
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