COVID-19 variants information

Published 18 February 2021

Like all viruses, COVID-19 is continuously mutating into new variants. Four thousand different variants have already been identified around the globe, three of which have caused some concern amongst the scientific community - the South Africa variant, the Kent variant and the Brazil variant.

All three variants have caused a mutation in the virus’ spike protein, the part of the virus that gains entry into human cells and infects them. This spike protein is also the part of the virus that researchers use to develop vaccines.

There is no evidence to suggest that these variants cause more serious illness. However, there is evidence that they are more easily spread from person to person. As with the original COVID-19 virus, the risk remains highest for those people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions. 

According to Public Health England, there have been 170 cases of the South African variant in the UK. Additional testing is being carried out in those areas where the variant is present. Everyone over the age of 16 in these areas is being asked to take a test even if they do not have symptoms.

It is too soon to say whether vaccines are effective against the new variants. Early studies appear to suggest that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is just as effective against the Kent variant. However, it offers minimal protection against mild cases of the South Africa variant - although it does protect against severe illness. Both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines appear to be just as effective against the South Africa variant, although the immune response may not be as strong. 

Vaccines can be tweaked to tackle new variants. The Oxford/AstraZeneca research team have begun to develop a new vaccine ready for autumn 2021. In addition, this week the Government announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company, CureVac, to develop against future variants and have placed a pre-order of 50 million vaccines. 

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