Britain yesterday announced its first six cases of a Brazilian coronavirus variant that ministers had been desperately trying to keep out of the country.
The strain — scientifically known as P1 — has mutated in a way that appears to make it more likely to infect people who caught other strains of Covid or who have been vaccinated.
It was first discovered in Manaus, a city of two million people in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, in December.
The city suffered a massive outbreak despite being thought to have high levels of protection from earlier spread of the virus, with may people getting reinfected, dealing a huge blow to the idea that herd immunity to the virus might develop naturally.
Scientists have since picked up on the variant in at least 25 countries around the world, including the UK, US, Italy, France, Belgium, Ireland and Switzerland.
Vaccines might be less effective against it but are still likely to work, experts say, and it isn’t likely to become the dominant strain in the UK while the Kent variant is still circulating.
Here, MailOnline explains all the facts you need to know about the variant:
Six cases of the P1 Brazilian variant have been detected through genetic sequencing in the UK – three in England and three in Scotland. One of the people tested in England has not yet been identified because they did not fill out their contact details on the NHS Test & Trace form
What is the P1 Brazilian variant and why are scientists worried?
The P1 variant is one of two that have been discovered in Brazil and is the more worrying of the two because of a key mutation called E484K.
E484K has been found on the South African variant and studies suggest it changes the shape of the virus in a way that alters how the immune system recognises it.
The body uses highly specific proteins called antibodies to tackle the virus when it gets into the body, and antibodies made to fit one virus generally won’t fit another.
If the coronavirus mutates too much it can start to look like a different virus and antibodies made in response to an older variant might not recognise the new one as well. This can lower the success rate they have when attacking the new strain.
This appears to be happening with the South African variant and the P1 Brazilian strain, making reinfections and, in theory, infection after vaccination more likely.
However, the virus is still recognised by most of the immune system and scientists are confident immunity will work across the board at preventing death and severe illness.
Antibodies are only one part of the immune system – an easily measured part, which is why they are useful in studies – and other substances such as white blood cells can boost people’s immunity but may be harder to measure in studies.
Where is the variant in the UK?
Six cases of positive tests caused by the P1 variant have been detected in the UK – three in England and three in Scotland.
Two of the cases in England have been traced to Bristol with surge testing now in the BS32 and BS34 postcodes, in the Filton, Stoke Gifford and Almondsbury areas.
One of the English cases has not been tracked down because the person who took the test didn’t give their personal details.
Ministers are desperately trying to trace anyone who took a swab test on February 12 or 13 and hasn’t yet had a result.
The three cases in Scotland landed on a flight to Aberdeen and are in self-isolation.
All six of them had flown into the UK from Sao Paolo, Brazil, via Zurich in Switzerland.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi claimed the five who had been tracked down had all followed proper procedure of testing negative before flying, admitting they had come from Brazil, and self-isolating when they arrived.
The city where new Brazilian strain defeated herd immunity
Brazil’s infection rate is at near-record levels with nearly 400,000 cases confirmed in the last week alone and the so-called P1 variant causing havoc
The Brazilian Covid variant detected in the UK is running rife in the Amazon city where it first emerged, despite the population approaching herd immunity – suggesting the new strain can evade existing antibodies.
Scientists believe that around 75 per cent of Manaus’ population was infected by the virus during Brazil’s disastrous first wave last year, which should have given it one of the highest levels of immunity in the world.
But despite this, Manaus has suffered a resurgence in infections blamed on the P1 variant – with hospitals running out of oxygen last month and record numbers of burials taking place in the city.
As healthcare services ‘collapsed’ under the strain of the new variant, one expert described the city as a ‘suffocation chamber’ with non-Covid sufferers being evicted from their beds to make way for severely ill virus patients.
The new strain has also raised fears that existing vaccines will be less effective, although UK health chiefs say the jabs could be adapted quickly if necessary.
There has been a ban on travellers coming into the country from Brazil since mid-January – even if they come through another country – but it does not apply to UK citizens or people with residence visas. The six people arrived before the hotel quarantine policy started on February 15.
Will vaccines still work against it?
Scientists expect the current vaccines to prevent death and serious illness caused by the P1 variant, but they may be less effective than they were in trials.
This is because of its ability to dodge some of the immune cells made in response to other strains of the virus, explained above.
This may mean that the body makes fewer antibodies to tackle the virus, but studies on the South African variant have shown people still appear to make enough of the antibodies to make themselves immune.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and expert at the University of Bristol, said on BBC Breakfast today: ‘At the moment, the evidence we have suggests that certainly the South African variant, and potentially this Brazilian variant – which is somewhat similar – the vaccines that we have at the moment are less effective at reducing at least mild disease and possibly transmission.
‘We’re optimistic that the vaccines will continue to prevent severe disease but the evidence for that is still fairly limited.
‘I think all the manufacturers are now working on the preliminary steps, if you like, to revising the vaccines if that proves necessary.
‘But for the moment the vaccines that we’re using are very effective against the strains that are predominantly circulating in the UK and it’s important that people understand that that’s still the case because we do need people to get immunised as fast as possible to get things under control.’
Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna have all said they are making new versions of their vaccines to tackle updated variants of the virus – believed to include the Brazilian and South African strains.
The new version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is expected to be ready by autumn this year.
Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, struck a more concerned tone.
He told Times Radio: ‘When I look at the data on how well this variant gets neutralised, it’s not that all immunity is gone, it’s that the vaccines look so much less potent, so there’ll be more people who have low antibody responses where it can break through and get affected. It all comes back much harder.’
Will the variant become dominant here?
It is very unlikely that the P1 variant will become dominant in the UK in the near future.
It carries the same mutation that makes the Kent strain spread so much faster than its predecessor – a change named N501Y – which means it is quick to transmit.
But this means it is probably equally fast-spreading as the Kent variant, and the UK variant is already dominant and widespread.
For another strain to knock it off the top spot it must be even faster to transmit, which does not appear to be the case.
The possibility of it becoming dominant later, however, lies in its ability to ‘escape’ some people’s immune systems, as explained above.
If Britain gets herd immunity from a vaccine that stops the Kent variant spreading – which the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs appear to do – then a variant that is able to escape this immunity could have an advantage and become more common, potentially taking over as the dominant strain.
Speaking about the very similar South African variant in February, deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said: ‘You will know from what we saw before Christmas with the 117 variant [Kent] that, if it has a distinct transmissibility advantage over the predecessor, then it can establish itself very quickly indeed.
‘But early data on modelling of B1.351 does not suggest this is so – does not suggest that the South African variant has a distinct transmissibility advantage over our current virus.
‘And because of that there is no reason to think the South African variant will catch up, or overtake, our current virus in the next few months. And that’s a really important point.’
If vaccines wipe out or disable the Kent variant, however, the Brazilian or South African ones may develop and advantage and start to take over.
They are currently in direct competition with the Kent variant, but if that is destroyed by vaccination they could have a clear run at spreading among people who aren’t immune.
Israel begins life with vaccine passports
By Nathan Jeffay in Tel Aviv for The Daily Mail
There is a new rule at Meir Elbaz’s synagogue near Tel Aviv. Only people who can produce a green pass, Israel’s new Covid passport, may cross the threshold. If you don’t have one of the highly-prized passes, you are relegated to the courtyard and forced to listen to prayers through the open windows.
‘It’s a harsh rule to impose but it’s for a really good reason, and ultimately it’s the kind of approach that will allow Israel to quickly return to normality,’ said Elbaz, a 29-year-old logistics manager.
Last week was the carnival-themed Jewish holiday of Purim, when the whole congregation traditionally attends prayers in fancy dress. It’s the highlight of the calendar for children and the place is normally filled with youngsters dressed as princes, princesses, superheroes and animals, given a once-a-year right to make as much noise as they like.
But only adults can get green passes and it’s hard to hear prayers from the courtyard, so Elbaz’s 18-month-old daughter – like all the other children – stayed home, with only her mother to admire her ladybird outfit.
A holder of the ‘green pass’ (proof of being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus), trains at a gym in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on February 21
It’s a stark example of how the new virus certificate, introduced on February 21, is changing Israel. Anyone above the age of 16, the minimum age at which you can be given the vaccine, can download the government-issued certificate to their phone if they have been inoculated against Covid or have recovered from the virus.
The certificate features a QR code that, once scanned, checks Israeli health records to confirm that the holder has received both doses of the Covid vaccine.
It can also be printed out on paper, allowing the smartphone-averse ultra-Orthodox community to also benefit from the scheme.
The government sees the system as having a key role to play in opening up society following the success of its world-beating vaccination programme which has seen public clinics give at least one dose to half the population.
Latest data indicates that the vaccine is proving to be 94 per cent effective. And for the first time in months, Israelis have flocked to gyms and swimming pools last week, with access legally restricted to those who could present a green pass at the door.
A man gets ready to swim in a pool, after entering the facility with his required ‘green pass’, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on February 21
The system will also be introduced at cafes, bars and restaurants as they are allowed to open over the coming weeks.
‘Opening these places is a big deal as recreational activities like eating out are a huge part of our culture and we’re all excited,’ said Joseph Gitler, chairman of Leket Israel, the national food bank. He added: ‘We’ve been seeing chefs and other furloughed restaurant staff turning up at our soup kitchens for meals, and the chance to kickstart our huge hospitality sector will do wonders in reducing poverty.’
The launch of the passport is also welcome news for concert promoter Ronit Arbel.
She is used to laying on gigs for the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Eric Clapton but, thanks to the pandemic, it will be some time before she hosts any more global icons.
Instead she will be organising concerts for local acts and, in another twist, she will be concentrating on those that appeal to an older demographic.
As most people who have been vaccinated so far – and are thus eligible for a green pass – are in the 60-plus age group, Arbel’s target market is now the elderly rather than the young.
She has predicted that artists who play music from the 1950s and 60s could be about to find themselves inundated with bookings.
She added: ‘All over the world, people are struggling with the loss of cultural events but I’m now starting to be optimistic, and think that the green pass will make Israel the first to revive.’
Ticket to ride: Excited green pass holders show their proof of vaccination before entering a concert for vaccinated seniors, organised by the municipality of Tel Aviv, February 24
Indeed, Tel Aviv held its first live cultural event for 11 months last Wednesday with a ‘green pass only’ concert by singer Nurit Galron for the city’s senior citizens.
However, there is little sign of this revival at the empty student union of Bar-Ilan University. But Rifat Sweidan, the man responsible for extra-curricular programming for students, is confident that the green passes will bring the place back to life within weeks.
‘For a year, students have been mostly only seeing each other remotely but this will get them studying and socialising together again,’ he predicted.
The problem is that the student demographic – those in their late teens and early 20s – has been the least worried by Covid and thus the slowest to get vaccinated since the offer of the jab was extended from the over-60s to everyone over 16.
However, Sweidan is convinced that the lure of a return to the pleasures of normal life will soon have young Israelis lining up to receive their jabs.
‘We set up a vaccination station on campus last week and there was very little demand – but now people see the value of a green pass, it’ll cause many more to take shots,’ he said.
‘After all, students are really keen to get back to restaurants, cafes, concerts and events, and are realising the green pass is the way.’ Sweidan, an Israeli-Arab, also reports a sense of excitement among Muslim families as it dawns on them that, unlike last year, they will be able to host guests during Ramadan.
And some are already considering hinging invitations on green passes. ‘Ramadan starts in the middle of April and I expect many will only be prepared to host those who have the pass, which I think will lead to a further rise in vaccination rates over the coming weeks,’ he said.
The release of the green pass is already creating signs of life in Israel’s decimated tourist industry. Tour operator Geoff Winston said that his phone has suddenly started ringing this week, with people from overseas wanting to book trips to Israel.
‘After months of quiet, I’ve had a couple of dozen groups wanting to plan trips, some as soon as the summer,’ he said.
‘They think the fact that such a high percentage of Israelis have taken shots and we have the green pass means they can visit and more or less only encounter vaccinated people.’