The COVID-19 variant found in Britain continues to mutate, and scientists are concerned that it is beginning to take on similar characteristics to the South African and Brazilian versions.

According to analysis from Public Health England (PHE), the mutation known as E484K has been observed in 11 samples of the British variant, called B.1.1.7. This very same mutation features in both the South African and Brazilian variants.

This mutation affects the shape of the virus’s spike protein and makes it less recognisable to the immune system and thus more resistant to current vaccines. This could be why some vaccines test lower efficacy in South Africa compared to other countries.

PHE did not specify how prevalent the mutation was among UK cases but said that “preliminary information suggests more than one acquisition event”.

According to Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, this “worrying development” may be due to recombination with one of the South African or Brazilian variant viruses that may have co-infected the same cell.

“If this E484K mutation is acquired by most of the UK B.1.1.7 variants – the recent reassurances from recent studies showing that the mRNA vaccines will still offer optimum protection against the original UK variant – may no longer apply,” she told The Guardian.

The government has rolled out a PCR testing programme in different areas. Door-to-door screening and mobile testing units have been introduced to pick up any new cases.

“The huge effort to test and trace and observe for reinfections and readmissions is incredibly important to help us understand what is going on here, but the honest answer is that we really just don’t know about the clinical importance of this,” Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the government, told The Guardian.

“But certainly we don’t want a virus like this spreading throughout our community and taking advantage of the lack of immunity that we currently have.”

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