Investigations underway to see if new COVID-19 variant in UK has impact on vaccine effectiveness

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Jakub Rupa
© GettyImages/Jakub Rupa

Related tags variant COVID-19

It is known and expected that viruses constantly change through mutation leading to the emergence of new variants, but preliminary analysis in the UK suggests the new SARS-CoV-2 variant is significantly more transmissible than previous ones.

The variant - VUI 202012/01 - has an estimated potential to increase the reproductive number by 0.4 or greater with an estimated increased transmissibility of up to 70%, according to a threat assessment report​ from the ECDC.

There is no indication at this point of increased infection severity associated with the new variant, said the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

A few cases with the new variant have to date been reported by Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands and, according to media reports, in Belgium and Italy.

However, given that there is currently a lack of evidence to indicate the extent to which the new virus variant is spread outside the UK, timely efforts to prevent and control its spread are needed, said the organization.

“Public health authorities and laboratories are urged to analyze and sequence virus isolates in a timely manner to identify cases of the new variant. People with an epidemiological link to cases with the new variant or travel history to areas known to be affected should be identified immediately to test, isolate and follow up their contacts in order to stop the spread of the new variant,”​ said the ECDC.

Monitoring of field effectiveness of vaccines  

Studies are ongoing to assess the impact of this new variant on the risk of reinfections or the efficacy of the vaccines being currently rolled out.

The organization said that with the implementation of vaccination, close monitoring of COVID-19-vaccinated individuals needs to be ensured to identify possible vaccination failure and breakthrough infections.

The ECDC encouraged investigation of the field effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in use, including variant-virus-specific estimates. “Surveillance of primary vaccine failures using variant-virus-specific outcomes may also help in understanding if there is an impact on vaccine effectiveness.​”

It highlighted how no phenotypic data are available for the new variant nor are data available with respect to the ability of antibodies elicited by vaccines under development to neutralize this variant.

“The new virus variant displays several mutations in the spike protein, including in the receptor binding site. Most of the new candidate vaccines are based upon the spike protein sequence. It is therefore essential to monitor changes in the spike protein among the circulating SARS-CoV-2 strains and assess possible antigenic changes. The antigenic characterization of the new variant is ongoing, and results are expected in the coming weeks.”

Similarly, cases with treatment failures using convalescent plasma or monoclonal antibodies should be further studied, it stressed.

Reducing transmission key

Dr Adam Barker, healthcare analyst, Shore Capital, in an update on the variant, said it does appear that VUI 202012/01 could be more transmissible, but that further data is needed to assess whether it causes more severe illness - there is no evidence currently that this is the case.

"It could even theoretically cause less severe illness."

Additionally, more data will be needed to understand how it interacts with immunity generated from the vaccines that are currently being rolled out, but the prevailing view remains that vaccination will be effective against this strain, said Barker.

"The situation does highlight why it would be desirable to have a vaccine which reduces onward transmission of the virus (aside from just reducing symptoms), given the higher the level of circulating virus, the more opportunity there is for novel variants to rise to high frequencies in the population. It is encouraging that this lineage has been identified by genotyping efforts and this work should continue alongside the development of plans to quickly modify vaccines as and when information on new, potentially concerning strains becomes available."

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