A new Covid-19 variant is now under investigation in the UK – with 16 confirmed cases so far – Public Health England has announced.
The variant, known as B.1.621, was designated a variant under investigation on Wednesday.
PHE are currently analysing the new strain of the deadly virus responsible for the global health crisis but stressed there is currently no evidence to suggest the new variant makes the vaccines less effective or causes more severe illness.
Experts are carrying out tests to better understand the impact of the latest mutation of coronavirus thought to have originated in Colombia.
Public Health England said in a statement: “Sixteen confirmed cases of B.1.621 have been identified across the country to date, and the majority have been linked to overseas travel.”
Where has the variant been found?
A total of 16 cases of the B.1.621 variant have been detected in the UK so far, all of which are in England.
Ten of the samples have been detected in London, while six have been among people in their twenties, with two cases among people who have been fully vaccinated.
Most of the cases detected have been linked to overseas travel.
PHE has said there is currently no sign that the variant is spreading in the community, although it said the stain contains a number of ‘mutations of concern’.
Testing shows the variant carries the same N501Y mutation that researchers believe made the Alpha Covid variant, first identified in Kent, so transmissible.
Some laboratory samples have also identified the E484K mutation which has been found in the Beta strain, first identified in South Africa, which experts have warned can partially evade vaccines.
The new variant has also been detected in Colombia (235 sequenced cases), the US (264 sequenced cases) and Spain (196 sequenced cases), among a number of other countries.
Do vaccines protect against it?
There is no evidence to suggest that the variant makes the coronavirus vaccines any less effective, or that it causes more severe illness, according to PHE.
It is not thought to be any deadlier than the Delta Covid variant, first identified in India, which currently accounts for 99 per cent of all coronavirus cases in the UK.
Cases of the Delta variant have increased by 33,716 since last week to a total of 286,765.
In a statement, PHE said: “Sixteen confirmed cases of B.1.621 have been identified across the country to date, and the majority have been linked to overseas travel.
“There is currently no evidence of community transmission in the UK.
“There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease or renders the vaccines currently deployed any less effective.
“PHE is carrying out laboratory testing to better understand the impact of mutations on the behaviour of the virus.”
Calls to get vaccinated
The discovery of the new variant comes as the percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 has increased across almost all regions in England.
Data from ONS has found that the North East of England had the highest proportion of people of any region likely to test positive for Covid-19 in the week to 17 July – amounting to around one in 45.
The North West was close behind with an estimate of one in 55, while Eastern Englnad had the lowest estimate at one in 110.
The North East is to be given a five-week package of support by the government in an effort to slow the growth of coronavirus in the region, including extra testing and support to maximise vaccine and testing uptake.
It will be deployed to the seven local authorities across Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham, and five local authorities in the Tees Valley.
The move comes as similar support in Bedford and much of the North West, which has been in place for between six and 10 weeks, is being scaled back.
The rising cases across much of the country has renewed calls for people to get vaccinated and ensure they receive both doses for maximum protection.
Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency said: “This most recent hospitalisation data shows once again just how crucial vaccination is in protecting us from severe illness and death.
“Two doses of vaccine are far more effective against Covid-19 than a single dose, so please make sure that you come forward to get your second dose as soon as you are invited.
“As we emerge from restrictions and vaccine coverage continues to rise, it is important to remember that while the protection provided by vaccination is excellent, it is not total. It is still as important as ever that we continue to exercise caution.”