Covid variant of concern - what does this mean and how concerned should we be?

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

In a way, the name says it all: “variant of concern” but what does that mean, and how concerned should we be? In the UK more than 90% of cases are being caused by the “Kent” variant of Covid that first emerged in September. It’s known to be more transmissible and has been given the unhelpful scientific classification B.1.1.7. On top of that, we’re now dealing with four new variants. Two are deemed to be “under investigation” and two “of concern” as defined by Public Health England.

The first is a not particularly worrying form of COVID called P.2 that was first identified in Brazil.

There have been 24 cases identified around the UK. This is not to be confused with the more problematic variant causing a surge in cases in the Amazon region called P.1. Thankfully we have no cases of that here - yet.

Then there’s a cluster of another variant in the Liverpool area. This is an old version of Covid but it includes a mutation found in Brazilian and South African variants of the virus so enhanced surveillance has been put in place around cases in Liverpool to monitor it. There are 55 confirmed cases. Of more concern, and hence the name, is first, the South Africa variant.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

It includes a slew of mutations that seem to have evolved in response to the human immune system and have enabled the virus to partially escape our immune response. One is the same mutation that makes our B.1.1.7 strain more transmissible.

It’s this variant that has led to the failure of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine trial in South Africa.

This evening we learned 170 cases of this variant have now been identified in the UK. The vast majority arrived in travellers.

However there are now 18 cases that have been detected with no link to foreign travel. This suggests the virus has spread undetected in the UK.

Surge testing in places like Manchester, Worcestershire, Surrey and now Lambeth in south London is designed to try and contain the variant.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The other “variant of concern” never had a link to foreign travel. It was first identified in Bristol and there have now been 21 cases confirmed in the Bristol area and South Wales and a couple of cases elsewhere.

This variant is more interesting in that it is a version of the “Kent variant” B.1.1.7 but it includes a mutation found in the South Africa variant (the same one found in the Liverpool cluster). But this makes it quite similar to the South Africa variant and lab studies have shown it might be able to escape antibodies in a similar way to the South Africa strain. So with two Covid variants out there that could — at least partially — evade our immune response, where’s the good news?

Surge testing has begun in Bristol after a new variant was discovered there. Credit: PA

Well one thing we learned today is that while new cases of these viruses are being detected, they’re certainly not spreading fast at the moment. Only a handful more cases have been detected in the weeks since they first emerged. There’s also some evidence that the new variants might have no competitive edge over the already dominant “Kent variant”.

This could explain their apparently slow spread and could mean that by a grim twist of fate our more transmissible strain that’s caused us such a massive increase in hospitalisations and deaths, might actually be helping to keep these new variants at bay. The other reason to be cheerful is that the vaccines being deployed have a good chance of preventing severe disease and death from these new variants.

So, even if they were to rise in numbers, the progress we’ve made in vaccination so far is likely to reduce their impact.

And new vaccines, already under development should be available by autumn which as the virus continues to evolve, is when we’ll likely need them ahead of next winter.