77 cases of ‘double mutant’ Covid-19 variant discovered in UK

16 April 2021, 10:16 | Updated: 16 April 2021, 12:23

People queue at a Covid-19 vaccination centre in London
People queue at a Covid-19 vaccination centre in London. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

The first cases of a 'doubly-mutated' Covid-19 variant have been discovered in the UK.

Public Health England reported that 73 cases of a variant named B.1.617, originally detected in India, have been confirmed in England as well as four cases in Scotland.

The figures come from the latest update of PHE's surveillance of the distribution of different variants across the UK, based on data up to April 7.

Officials have designated it a variant under investigation and some scientists have said it is a cause for concern as it could be "less controlled by vaccine." The variant carries two different mutations E484Q and L452R.

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Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the variant featured two "escape mutations" - E484Q and L452R - that "are causing people to be concerned".

He added: "There's laboratory evidence that both of these are escape mutations.

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"Basically, applying what we know about other human coronaviruses would suggest that this is going to be even less controlled by vaccine.

"But we don't know that for certain at the moment."

India is not currently on the UK's 'red list' of travel destinations.

India has so far officially confirmed over 13.9 million cases of Covid-19 and 172,000 dead, although these are likely to be lower than the true figures.

India's worst-hit and richest state of Maharashtra imposted tougher restrictions for 15 days from Wednesday in an effort to stem a surge of coronavirus infections that threatens to overcome hospitals.

PHE's latest findings mean there are now seven 'variants under investigation' and four 'variants of concern' being tracked by scientists in the UK.

In London, extra testing facilities were launched this week to help limit the spread of the South African coronavirus variant following a cluster of cases being discovered.

A total of 600 cases of the variant of concern have been detected so far in the UK, an increase of 56 in a week.

It is still too early for results from the surge testing in response to cases detected in London and Sandwell in the West Midlands to show up in PHE figures.

Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London, speaking to the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the London cluster was a "concern".

But he added that earlier clusters of the same variant had been found before and "that hasn't led to a rapid take off".

"So even though it's a different situation now with lockdown being eased, I think that's a little bit reassuring," he added.

He highlighted that the variant had been detected in Israel, which has a heavily vaccinated population, and it had not yet "risen to dominance or grown".

"Although we have to watch it and be concerned, it's not immediately apparent that it will be a large problem," he added.