A new coronavirus variant has been identified in Brazil, raising questions about whether it could cause more severe disease, or be immune to current vaccines.


Boris Johnson is very concerned about this new variant, adding that extra measures are being put in place to prevent the variant being imported to the UK. Travel to the UK from all of South America as well as Portugal, Panama and Cape Verde was banned from 4am on Friday 15 Jan.

The news comes as the new UK coronavirus variant, B1.1.7. continues to rapidly spread across the country. Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins said that the Government was keeping COVID-19 restrictions under constant review.

What is the Brazil variant of coronavirus?

The Brazilian variant has three key mutations in the spike receptor-binding domain (RBD) that largely mirror some of the mutations experts are worried about in the South African variant.

The coronavirus RBD is one of the main targets for our immune defences and also the region targeted by vaccines. Changes within this region are therefore worrisome. However, it is not yet known if the mutation causes more severe COVID-19 as more research and data are needed.

Experts detected the new variant circulating in December 2020 in Manaus, north Brazil. Data also suggests the Brazilian variant has been detected in Japan.

Like the South African variant, the Brazilian one carries a mutation in the spike protein called E484K, which is not present in the UK strain. The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition, helping the virus to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination.

Scientists say it is essential to rapidly investigate whether there is an increased rate of re-infection in previously exposed individuals. This will help us understand if the prior infection provides protection against this new variant.

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What is being done to assess the risk posed by the Brazil variant?

Dr Susan Hopkins, deputy director of the National Infection Service of Public Health England (PHE) said PHE experts are looking at the variant and need to grow the virus in the UK in order to perform laboratory experiments. A lot is still unknown about the variant, and analysis is ongoing.

Experts need to understand the biology of new strains, as well as understanding mutations. The key thing they are currently looking at is whether the mutations mean the virus escapes the immune response.

“The new Brazilian variant of concern has not been detected in the UK. Other variants that may have originated from Brazil have been previously found”, according to Prof Wendy Barclay, head of the G2P-UK National Virology Consortium studying coronavirus mutations.

Will vaccines still be effective against the new variants?

Coronavirus vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible. As before, we can limit transmission by following social distancing, mask and hygiene guidelines.

Experts say it is still too early to tell whether the current vaccines will be effective against the Brazilian and South African variants. But, work is underway to assess this.

Nevertheless, a new coronavirus jab could be manufactured within 30-40 days if researchers find a variant is less responsive to the vaccines available, according to Nadhim Zahawi, vaccine deployment minister in the UK. He says that measures have been put in place to produce the “next iteration” of jabs, if needed.

Healthcare professional in protective gloves & workwear holding & organising a tray of COVID-19 vaccine vials. The professional is carrying out researches on COVID-19 vaccine in laboratory.
Healthcare professional holding a tray of COVID-19 vaccine vials © Getty Images

Experts say the new vaccines are like emails we send to the immune system, and are very easy to tweak. If the virus has changed, the vaccine only has to have one or two alterations made like editing a word or two in an email template. It may take a few weeks to edit but soon a new vaccine could be available which targets the mutated coronavirus strain.

Why do viruses mutate?

Viruses evolve and replicate in order to survive – mutations are a simple mistake in the virus replication process that gives it a chance to keep infecting people.

Mutations usually occur by chance, and the pressure on the virus to evolve is increased by the fact that millions of people have now been infected. Sometimes mutations lead to weaker versions of a virus, and the changes can even be so small that they barely impact how the virus behaves.

There have been many mutations in SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, since its emergence and some more significant than others. However, this is to be expected as this virus is an RNA virus, like the flu and measles, and these tend to mutate and change.

However, the new UK variant is more transmissible, and it is thought the same may be true of the Brazilian variant.

What exactly is a mutation?

In simple terms, a virus delivers a set of instructions into a cell in the body and the cell follows these instructions to make more new virus. The instructions are replicated, so that each new virus that is created gets a single copy of the copied code.

Sometimes there is a mistake in the instructions, and when this virus infects a new cell it will either fail, or the virus will continue to replicate the mutated code.

Although new strains of the coronavirus can be concerning, researchers are studying their mutations and transmission patterns to limit their impact and develop new coronavirus vaccines when needed.

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Frankie MacphersonIntern Journalist, BBC Science Focus