Scientists are tracking another new variant of Covid-19 in the UK, after 16 cases of the strain were identified.
Public Health England (PHE) revealed on Thursday (4 March) that the cases were discovered through genomic horizon scanning on 15 February.
The variant, referred to as VUI-202102/04, is understood to have originated in the UK and was designated a “variant under investigation” (VUI) by PHE nine days after it was discovered.
New strains of coronavirus emerge regularly and scientists conduct frequent analysis to determine which are of concern.
The new findings mean that scientists are now monitoring four VUIs and four “variants of concern” (VOC) in the UK.
PHE said this latest identified strain, also known as B.1.1.318, contains the E484K mutation which has been found in the South Africa and Brazil variants in the UK, which are both VUIs.
Experts believe that this mutation may help the virus evade some immunity from vaccination or from previous infection.
However, the new variant does not feature the N501Y mutation that is present in all VOCs.
All 16 people who have tested positive for the variant, and their contacts, have all been traced and advised to isolate.
PHE said the cases were geographically spread across the UK, but surge or mass testing would not be necessary as this is only required for VOCs, such as the Brazil strain.
The UK now has eight Covid-19 variants on its watch list in total, four of which are VUIs and four VOCs.
Further surge testing rolled out
The emergence of the new coronavirus strain comes as efforts to increase targeted testing and suppress the spread of variants of concern are expanded across the UK.
Additional testing and genomic sequencing has been announced by the government for targeted areas of north-west London and north-east England where the South African VOC has been found.
The resources will be deployed in the North Wembley area of Brent in the capital and the TS19 postcode area in Stockton-on-Tees, in County Durham, to suppress the variant’s potential spread, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
It follows an announcement last week that surge testing would be deployed in Ealing and Redbridge in London to help control the same variant.
Surge testing also began in south Gloucestershire on Monday (1 March) where cases of the Manaus variant of coronavirus were discovered.
Six cases of this VOC, known as P1 and first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus, have been found in the UK - three in Scotland and three in England.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday (2 March) that the search for a missing person infected with the variant had been narrowed down to 379 households in the south east of England.
The person infected with the variant who has not been traced used a home testing kit but did not complete their contact details. Mr Hancock has said incidents like this are rare and only occur in around 0.1 per cent of tests.
Scientists are now looking at tweaking coronavirus vaccines to keep pace with the new, emerging variants to ensure that they continue to offer high protection as the virus mutates.
The UK's drug regulator the MHRA has said new vaccines can be fast-tracked through the approval system without "lengthy" clinical studies.