Public Health England (PHE) is investigating strains of coronavirus in the UK which have developed a mutation that has been worrying scientists.
A PHE spokesman said: “PHE is monitoring the situation closely and all necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing and control measures.”
How close to Swindon is the new mutation?
Eleven cases in the Bristol area have been identified as the variant that originally arose in Kent but are now showing the E484K mutation.
A cluster of 32 cases in Liverpool also have the same mutation but relate to the original strain of coronavirus that has been around since the start of the pandemic.
What is the new mutation?
The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing people contracting Covid-19.
However, public health experts believe current vaccines will still be effective against strains with the mutation, although at a lower level, and are good at preventing severe disease.
Regarding the E484K mutation seen in the Kent variant, Dr Jonathan Stoye, from the Francis Crick Institute, said the PHE report suggests the UK variant is now independently acquiring the E484K change.
“From a virological standpoint, appearance of new variants by mutation during replication cannot be considered surprising,” he added.
“Whether this change will provide significant growth advantages for the novel virus causing it to predominate remains to be seen.”
Regional PHE officials said the mutation was detected in Liverpool last month as part of cases among staff at Liverpool Women’s Hospital. A cluster of an initial five cases was detected on January 10 among some staff who had attended an event outside the hospital, believed to be a funeral.
What about the South African variant?
The South African variant – which also shows the mutation – is under investigation in at least eight postcode areas of England where cases not linked to travel have been found.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said testing was now under way in postcode areas affected by the mutation, alongside eight postcode areas affected by the South African variant.
Mr Hancock told MPs that the aim of community testing for the South African variant – currently targeting around 80,000 people in eight postcode areas – is to “stop its spread altogether”.
He said: “As with the variant first identified here in the UK, there is currently no evidence to suggest it is any more severe but we have to come down on it hard.
“Our mission must be to stop its spread altogether and break those chains of transmission.”
What is being done to vaccinate against new variants?
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Hancock said the Government is working closely with pharmaceutical firms in case vaccines need to be tweaked to accommodate new variants.
He said: “We’re working with pharmaceutical companies and with the scientists to understand both whether the such modifications are needed, where they are needed, and how they can be brought to use on the frontline as quickly and safely as possible.
“This is obviously a very important consideration given the new variants that we’ve seen.
“And we have confidence that modifications to vaccines, should they be necessary in large scale, will be available more quickly than the original vaccines.
“And just as we did first time round, when we got in there early and we bought at risk, so we are having exactly the same conversations right now with the pharmaceutical companies to make sure that we are right at the front of this one.”