The coronavirus variant originally found in Manaus in Brazil and now detected in six cases in the UK was able to evade 25% to 61% of the protection people in the Amazonian city had after a first bout of Covid, researchers say.
An international team of scientists is calling for more genetic sequencing of emerging variants around the world, saying that only with knowledge of how Sars-Cov2 is mutating can the pandemic be brought under control.
The variant, called P1, is causing concern in the UK because it not only has potential to evade the immune protection of previous illness or vaccines, but is more transmissible than the original coronavirus. The study in Manaus, which has not yet been published in peer-reviewed form, found it was about 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than the original virus.
The scientists said at a briefing that six cases, promptly detected in the UK, did not presage significant spread of the variant. HIt was vital, however, to identify variants emerging throughout the world in countries that had little or no genomic sequencing capacity at the moment, they said.
The research was carried out by the Brazil-UK Cadde project, whose work on genetic sequencing predates the pandemic. It includes the Institute of Tropical Medicine in São Paulo, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and universities in Oxford, London and Birmingham.
Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin, suffered a first wave of Covid in April/May. Studies of blood donors suggested 66% of people had antibodies against the virus in July and 76% by October, which would have been expected to give them immunity.
But the city suffered a serious second wave. There could have been various explanations, including the possibility that the data on previous infection was wrong, but the team of researchers identified the P1 variant on 6 December. It spread rapidly: within eight weeks, it was implicated in 87% of cases.
Dr Nuno Faria of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said they had concluded that the variant was causing people who had already suffered from Covid to get it again.
“If 100 people were infected in Manaus last year, somewhere between 25 and 61 of them are susceptible to reinfection by P1,” he said at a briefing. “We caution, however, that our results from analysis should not be generalised to other epidemiological contexts and/or other variants of concern.”
Prof Sharon Peacock, Director of Cog-UK, the consortium responsible for the genomic sequencing of the virus and its variants, said P1 has spread to 25 countries to date. “It is being distributed around the world. But I would say that in terms of the UK, we have just six cases identified, which we heard about yesterday from Public Health England, and from the government,” she said.
Three cases have been located in Scotland and two in England, but the sixth is unknown. On Monday, the government appealed for anyone who took a test on 12 or 13 February but did not submit their contact details to come forward.
Peacock wanted to express a note of caution about the findings from Manaus, she said. “We need to see whether this is generalisable to other settings, she said. “So I think it would be wise to indicate that this is relevant to where the study was done, but we don’t know how that will pan out in other countries, including the UK.
“The response that we’ve taken in the UK has been very brisk, and is appropriate, but very vigorous.”
Public Health England was investigating the six known cases of people infected with P1, tracing contacts and taking appropriate action, she said.
The research shows that P1 has 17 mutations and many are similar to those found in the spike protein of the variant found in South Africa, called B1351. In particular, a mutation called E484K that they share appears to enable the variants to escape the immune system, which means that vaccines may have reduced efficacy.