This particular mutation changes the shape of the virus’ spike protein – which is responsible for gaining entry to human cells – in a way that makes it less recognisable to the body’s immune system and more resistant to the current generation of Covid vaccines.
A mutated version of the coronavirus variant first detected in Kent has been classified as a cause for “concern” by scientific advisers to the government.
Of the 21 cases linked to the newly-classified “variant of concern”, which has been labelled VOC-202102/02, 14 were based in Bristol, four in Manchester, and the remaining three were scattered across England.
E484K features in the genetic make-up of both the South African and Brazilian variants, and now genome sequencing has identified natural occurrences of this highly concerning mutation in B117.
PHE said that a second variant identified in Liverpool, which also carries the E484K mutation, has been placed under investigation. A total of 55 cases have been linked to this variant.
Health officials said they have “a high degree of confidence that the vaccines will work against variants”.
There are now four “variants of concern” of the virus that causes Covid-19 identified by the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).
Three of these variants have been found in the UK, which has one of the most established genetic surveillance networks in the world, allowing scientists to track new mutations when they emerge and evolve.
Dr Susan Hopkins, from PHE, told a press briefing on Tuesday: “I think it’s important to note that the E484K mutation in particular has been emerging and disappearing over time, in multiple lineages and multiple variants, since April last year.
“But clearly with it on top of what we know about the transmissibility of B117, the dominant variant in the UK, we’re monitoring it with particular concern.”
In response to the new and emerging variants, the government has announced it is deploying additional surge testing and sequencing to targeted areas around Worcestershire, Sefton in Liverpool, and areas in Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Manchester.
Extra coronavirus testing will also be carried out in Lambeth, south London, following the detection of the South African coronavirus variant, known as B1351.
A total of 170 cases linked to B1351 have been identified in England to date.
PHE said that 18 of these infections were unlinked to travel to South Africa, pointing to community-based transmission of the virus.
Meanwhile, surge testing carried out in Woking is now complete, the Department of Health and Social Care said.