BLOG: Covid variants explained

Director of Public Health Matt Ashton on why we should not panic about the new variants of Covid-19.

There has been lots of talk about different mutations, or variants, of Covid-19 in recent weeks.

As any virologist will tell you, the reality is that viruses mutate all the time, every single day. That’s what they do in order to survive.

When a virus mutates, we end up with a different variant of the virus. As a result, there are lots of variants in the Covid-19 virus.

Some of these variants are only small changes to the original virus, and therefore don’t make much difference to it.

However, sometimes the changes are bigger and more impactful.

The Kent (B117) variant

Experts think the UK or ‘Kent’ strain emerged in September and may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible or infectious, although the latest research by Public Health England puts it between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

Because it is more transmissible, it has the potential to cause the same level of morbidity or mortality but to a much greater number of people. In Liverpool, we think around 78 per cent of our positive Covid-19 cases are currently made up of this variant.

We know this because of the genomic sequencing of positive PCR Covid-19 samples. Only a small proportion of overall positive samples are sequenced, but they tell us a lot about the different variants circulating locally and nationally.

The South Africa (B1351) and Brazilian (B11248) variants

There is no evidence that either of these cause more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.

However, as with the Kent variant, there are concerns it can spread more readily – and there are also concerns that vaccines may not work quite as well against it. This is because these variants also have another mutation, called E484K, which could help the virus dodge a person’s immune system.

The South African variant is the one that has now been identified in the UK, with around 11 cases not being linked to travel, including some in the Southport area, resulting in enhanced local testing being put in place by our colleagues at Sefton Council.

The local variant (E484K mutation)

We have been responding to an outbreak of positive cases in Liverpool since the start of January, in which the E484K mutation has also been identified, which you may have read about and has now been declared as a ‘variant under investigation’. It is important to be clear that this is not the South Africa or Brazilian variants, but a variant based on the original Covid-19 virus.

Vaccines may not work quite as well against it, but it isn’t thought to be more transmissible. There are now around 55 confirmed cases across the Liverpool City Region of this variant – and not all are linked to the original outbreak – but this still makes up a very small proportion of overall total positive cases.

We are working with Public Health England and the Department for Health and Social Care to determine what actions, if any, are necessary in response to our variant, including getting more of our samples sequenced, potentially putting more testing in place, and exploring additional ways of supporting more people to stay at home and self isolate if they come back positive.

We are also recommending that anybody with a wider set of symptoms should book a test by calling 119 or visiting https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test which will help break chains of transmission of the virus, and help bring infection rates down further.

What can we do to protect ourselves against the new variants?

The measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 remain the same:

  • During the current lockdown, stay at home unless it is essential to go out
  • Keep your distance from others – two metres at all times
  • Wear a face covering in crowds of people and enclosed spaces such as shops
  • If you have symptoms, get tested (including if you have a wider set of symptoms)
  • If you have to leave the house regularly, such as for work or education, get tested regularly, ideally every 5 to 7 days, at one of our symptom-free test centres
  • Take up the offer of a vaccine when your turn comes, and encourage others to do the same

In addition, from Monday 15 February, people arriving in England from “red list” countries must isolate for 10 days in hotels. 

We are still continuing efforts to understand the effect of the variants on transmissibility, severe disease, mortality, antibody response and the effectiveness of vaccines. 

The reality is that the Covid-19 virus will continue to mutate, and new variants will continue to emerge. There is no doubt that, over time, updated versions of the vaccine will need to be produced and approved, so we can continue to respond effectively in the coming years, in the same way as we do with flu.

Until that time, it’s essential we all do everything in our power to minimise the spread of the virus, and keeps ourselves and others safe from harm.