UK Covid variant has taken an evolutionary step towards avoiding our immune system

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

Members of the public at an asymptomatic coronavirus testing centre in Walsall, as urgent testing for the South African strain gets underway. Credit: PA

On Monday, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced we needed to “come down hard” on cases of the South Africa variant now spreading in various locations across the UK.

However, new evidence published today suggests this is far from the only concern we should have.

Our locally grown “UK variant” known as B.1.1.7 is also evolving, and has taken on a key genetic characteristic of the South Africa variant that could help it evade existing antibodies to Covid-19 or to vaccines being rolled out.

Public Health England have confirmed to me they have identified 15 cases of the UK variant which contains a mutation called E484K.

This is listed as a “mutation of concern” because it is also found in the South Africa variant and the P.1 variant circulating in Brazil. Enhanced surveillance around these cases is now in place.

It’s a worrying development because scientists have long predicted that the coronavirus will evolve in similar ways in response to Covid antibodies or antibodies produced in response to vaccination.

It’s happened separately in Brazil, and in South Africa.

Now, evidence of this mutation popping up in an already more transmissible strain of the virus like B.1.1.7 suggests this evolution is under way in the UK.

While we can shut our borders to keep out worrying variants of the virus from overseas, with cases of our own variant still very high there’s little we can do to stop it evolving within the UK.

So how concerned should we be about these cases of the UK variant that’s tricked itself out with the E484K mutation? New lab based experiments published today suggest there certainly is an effect.

Antibodies in blood from people who’d been vaccinated with one dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine showed a 10 fold reduction in their ability to neutralise a UK variant virus with the E484K mutation made in the lab.

Where testing for the South African variant has been rolled out. Credit: PA

Seven of the 15 individuals who’s blood were studied were completely unable to neutralise the UK variant including the E484K mutation.

All were over 80 — its known older people tend to have lower overall immune responses. However the study found when these individuals received their second dose of vaccine, they were able to neutralise the virus.

So this reduction isn’t enough to render the vaccine useless in patients who make a good immune response.

But it provides good evidence the UK variant is taking major steps towards avoiding our immune response.

Scientists are urging pubic health officials to step up surveillance for other instances of the the UK variant evolving mutations of concern.