The United Kingdom has reported a key mutation in the coronavirus variant called B.1.1.7—or more colloquially the ‘U.K. variant’- that studies say makes it more infectious, better equipped to thwart immune systems and slightly reduce the potency of vaccines.
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The mutation, called E484K, has been reported previously in South Africa in a coronavirus lineage called B.1.135. Public Health England, a government body, said in an analysis made public on Tuesday that in an analysis of 2,14,159 cases, 11 had shown up as carrying the new mutation.
These mutation have, however, not shown to be linked to increased severity of disease.
India last month banned flights from the UK. but has partially recommenced operations. So far, there have been 138 confirmed cases of Indians, with recent travel history to the U.K., with the B.1.1.7 variant. There have been neither confirmed reports of B.1.135—also called the South African variant—in India nor the mutation E484K.
Vaccine companies Pfizer and Moderna had undertaken laboratory tests to see if their vaccines are effective against the new mutated strains. Both claimed that their vaccines were effective against the U.K. strain. Moderna said it had also tested its vaccine against the South African variant and while effective, it showed a slightly diminished response compared to that against the U.K. variant.
Novavax, another vaccine candidate in the U.S., reported that its vaccine had only 60% efficacy in its South Africa trial compared to 89% in the U.K.
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On Tuesday, Minister of State for Health, Ashwini Choubey said in a written statement in the Rajya Sabha that there was “no data generated” on Covaxin and Covishield regarding their effectiveness on the “new European” coronavirus strain. “However, in [the] case of M/s Bharat Biotech International Limited, during consultation, the Subject Expert Committee [SEC] noted that the Inactivated Whole Virion Corona Virus Vaccine has potential to target mutated corona virus strains,” he stated.
Bharat Biotech results
Last week, Bharat Biotech reported results of a laboratory test that showed its vaccine appeared to be working against the U.K. strain. No tests were done to check its potency against the South Africa variant.
Since December, India has been scanning genomes of coronavirus positives with international travel history and also announced plans to do so in five percent of the population of those positive but there’s no information public yet on whether these variants have been found in the larger community.
Variants B.1.1.7 and B.1.135 have common links. B.1.1.7 was linked to increased infectivity because of the presence of a key mutation called N501Y that allowed the coronavirus to better infiltrate healthy cells. However, B.1.135 possesses N501Y as well as E484K among others. In ways that aren’t yet fully understood, these combination of mutations enable them to evade antibodies to some extent due to which scientists also refer to them as ‘escape mutants.’
Scientists at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi, have identified other escape mutants in Andhra Pradesh and are undertaking an analysis of mutations in a section of positives in Kerala.
The World Health Organisation, in a report last week, said that B.1.135 had now been identified in 31 countries and B.1.1.7 in 70 countries.