Covid variants

latest on the Indian, Brazilian, UK and South African variants

Covid variants

The latest info on the Indian, Brazilian, South African and UK variants of coronavirus, including if they’re more deadly, and how they respond to vaccines.

What are the new strains of coronavirus?

All viruses, including coronaviruses, can change over time. This can lead to different strains of the virus with different characteristics. While there are many different tiny changes in the genetic sequence of the virus, there are three main strains (also called variants) which are currently circulating more quickly. The UK (Kent) strain, the South African strain and the Brazilian strain are each identified through a specific combination of mutations. Even though these variants arose in different places, they share some of the same mutations.

It’s common for viruses to change over time – so it’s not surprising that coronavirus has mutated. When a virus such as Covid-19 enters the body, it begins to multiply quickly. Each time it multiplies, there is a chance that the virus may slightly change. This process is called mutation. More new strains are likely to arise and it’s also possible for new strains to mix to create even more new variants.

What is the Indian variant of coronavirus (B.1.617)?

The B.1.617 variant first appeared in India in October 2020. There are concerns this variant is now contributing to a sharp increase in coronavirus cases in parts of India.

B.1.617 is now present in the UK, and enhanced contact tracing measures have been put in place as Public Health England continues to investigate the variant.

Is the B.1.617 variant more deadly?

We don’t yet have evidence that the B.1.617 variant is more deadly than earlier strains of coronavirus. The UK government is currently investigating this strain.

The B.1.617 variant has several important mutations which may make it easier to pass on, or make it  resistant to the immune response to the virus. 

      • The E484Q mutation, which is similar to the E484K mutation first identified in the South African strain. There is evidence that this mutation may help the virus escape the immune response, in particular antibodies (which stick to the virus to help neutralise the threat and tell other parts of the immune system to attack it).
      • The L452R mutation, which may help the virus escape the immune response, in particular immune cells (which help to directly attack the virus and infected cells). There is also some evidence it can affect how well the virus can bind to ACE2 receptors on the surface of our cells. As this is a vital step in the virus getting into our cells, this mutation could potentially make it more infective.  
      • The P681R mutation – which is also present in other variants, including the Kent strain. It’s thought that this mutation may make it easier for the virus to spread.

Is the vaccine effective against the B.1.617 variant of coronavirus?

We don’t yet know how effective the Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines will be at protecting against the B1.617 variant, but there isn’t any evidence that they won’t protect you. When further evidence becomes available we will update this page.

What is the UK variant of coronavirus?

The UK variant of coronavirus is called B.1.1.7. or B117. It was first discovered in Kent in September 2020 and was linked to a sharp increase in cases in the UK. This variant is now one of the dominant strains in the UK and has spread to many other countries.

Is the UK variant more deadly?

Yes, recent studies suggest the UK variant of coronavirus (B117) is linked to a higher chance of hospitalisation and death than the original strain.

A recent study by the University of Exeter and Bristol assessed samples from 54,906 people who had tested positive for the UK strain, against people who had tested positive for other strains. 

The study showed that the UK strain led to 227 deaths among 54,906 patients, compared to 141 deaths in the group of  the same size with other coronavirus strains. That means the UK strain could be 64 per cent more deadly. 

The study was based on people who tested positive for Covid-19 outside of hospital, so isn’t representative of everyone who catches the virus. In particular, people who are diagnosed with Covid in hospital tend to be those who are most unwell and more likely to die, so we don’t know what the difference between strains would be for that group of people. 

Even though there is evidence that the UK strain is more deadly, it’s important to remember that the overall risk of death from Covid-19 is still low.

Is the Pfizer vaccine effective against the UK strain?

Early results from lab studies show that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine offers a good level of protection against mutations found in the UK variant (B.1.1.7). While further research is ongoing, it’s likely that the vaccine will still help protect against this strain.

Is the Oxford vaccine effective against the UK strain?

A study on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine shows that it offers good protection against the UK variant of coronavirus (B.1.1.7).

The study showed that this vaccine offers 75% effectiveness against the UK strain, compared to 84% against the initial strain. This is well above the 50% minimum level of protection that is recommended by the World Health Organization.

Is the Moderna vaccine effective against the UK strain?

Early results from lab studies show that antibodies made in response to the Moderna vaccine are still effective against mutations found in the UK variant.

What is the South African variant of coronavirus - and is it in the UK?

A new variant from South Africa is now present in the UK. The South African variant – which is referred to as B.1.351, shares some of the same mutations as the UK (Kent) and Brazilian strains.

There are currently only a small number of cases of the South African variant in the UK, and the government has put measures in place to minimise community spread of this variant.

Is the new South African variant more deadly?

The South African strain is not believed to be more deadly than the initial strain, but it is known to spread more quickly than the initial strain. 

Is the Pfizer vaccine effective against the South African strain of Covid?

Results from lab studies suggest that antibodies made in response to the Pfizer vaccine are less effective against the South African variant - but this doesn’t mean the vaccine won’t offer some protection.

Recent analysis of real people who were given the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine during phase 3 trials showed more promising results. On 1 April 2021, Pfizer/BioNTech published data looking specifically at 800 people in the trial who were living in South Africa. Their analysis suggests the vaccine is 100% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 caused by the B.1.351 variant. No cases were seen in people who received the vaccine, compared to 8 in the control group. However, ongoing research is needed in this area, particularly given the relatively small numbers of people and Covid-19 cases in this analysis.

Pfizer/BioNTech also recently announced that they are developing a booster vaccine, which is more specific to the South African variant.

Is the Oxford vaccine effective against the South African strain of Covid?

A small study of 2,000 people in South Africa has shown that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers minimal protection against mild cases of the South African variant, but the vaccine is still likely to reduce severe cases and deaths from the South African strain.

The study, which was based people of an average age of 31, shows that protection may be as low as 10%. The research wasn’t able to determine whether it protects against serious illness or hospitalisation, because this group of people were at low risk of serious illness. Other research suggests that the vaccine is still likely to reduce severe cases and deaths from the South African strain. More research is needed in this area.

Oxford University is working on adapting the vaccine to ensure that it protects against this variant, as well as other strains. They have said a ‘booster’ jab could be available by autumn 2021. 

Is the Moderna vaccine effective against the South African strain?

Early results from lab studies show that antibodies made in response to the Moderna vaccine are still active, though slightly less effective against mutations in the South African variant. The effectiveness of the Moderna vaccine against the South African strain still needs to be tested on real people who have had the vaccine.

Moderna has developed a booster vaccine to target the South African variant (B.1.351), which is now in phase 1 clinical trials in the USRead 

What is the new Brazilian variant of coronavirus – and is it in the UK?

A strain of coronavirus, first identified in travellers from Brazil, is present in the UK. The Brazilian variant is being referred to as P.1. It is not yet thought to be widespread in the UK.

Is the new Brazilian variant more deadly?

The Brazilian strain is not believed to be more deadly, but it does spread more easily than the original Covid-19 strain.

Is the Pfizer vaccine effective against the Brazilian variant of coronavirus?

Early results from lab studies have have shown that antibodies made in response to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are still active, though slightly less effective against mutations found in the Brazilian variant.

It’s important to remember that immunity is not an all or nothing response – even if the antibodies produced in response to a vaccine are slightly less effective at binding to a variant of the virus, this does not mean that it will not give protection against disease.

Another early laboratory study looking at immune cells in the blood of people who had had the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine found that mutations present in coronavirus variants, including the Brazil variant, didn’t seem to affect whether these cells were able to react to the virus.

More research is needed to understand how effective the vaccine is against the Brazilian variant, including large studies in real people who have had the vaccine.

Is the Oxford vaccine effective against the Brazilian variant of coronavirus?

Early results from lab studies show antibodies made in response to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine are still active, though slightly less effective against mutations in the Brazilian variant. Researchers are continuing to examine whether there is any impact on the effectiveness of the vaccine when used in real people.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine contains the genetic instructions for the whole coronavirus spike protein – different immune cells will react to different parts of the spike, producing antibodies which target different areas. This reduces the chances that any individual mutation present in new coronavirus strains will make the vaccine less effective. But researchers are continuing to examine how effective the vaccine is against the Brazilian variant.

Is the Moderna vaccine effective against the Brazilian strain?

Early results from lab studies show that the Moderna vaccine produces active antibodies against mutations in the Brazilian variant, although the antibodies are slightly less effective against this variant. Immunity is not an all or nothing response – even if the antibodies produced in response to a vaccine are slightly less effective at binding to a variant of the virus, this does not mean that it will not give protection against disease. 

Another early laboratory study looking at immune cells in the blood of people who had had the Moderna vaccine found that mutations present in coronavirus variants, including the Brazil variant, didn’t seem to affect whether these cells were able to react to the virus.

More research is needed to understand how effective the vaccine is against the Brazilian variant, including studies in real people who have had the vaccine.

What are the symptoms of the new Covid variants?

Many people who get coronavirus don’t have any symptoms, regardless of which strain they have. And there is no single symptom that means that you definitely do or don’t have the virus. So, if you have any concerns that you may have coronavirus, the safest thing to do is self-isolate and get a test.

The new strains of coronavirus share the same key symptoms with the initial strain – including a high temperature, continuous cough, and loss of sense of taste or smell.

There has been some early research on the UK (Kent) strain that shows the symptoms are very similar to other strains. According to the research, based on testing in England, 35% of people who tested positive for the UK variant reported having a cough, compared to 27% who tested positive for other strains.

The common symptoms that were reported for the UK strain are similar to other variants – for example, fatigue (32% of people with the UK variant), muscle aches (25%), a fever (21%) or sore throat (21%). These levels of symptoms are similar to the levels seen with other strains.

Loss of taste or loss of sense of smell is slightly less common for people with the new UK strain - 15% of people with the UK strain report either of these symptoms, compared to 18% of people with other strains.

Scientists in the UK and globally have been working hard to recognise new variants as they emerge, so that we have the best possible understanding of the virus, how easily it spreads and how effective the vaccines are. Ultimately, if you have suspected or confirmed coronavirus, it is unlikely to make much difference which strain you have. Whatever the strain, the response needs to be the same – self-isolate and get a test.