Another new variant of Covid is likely to already be in the UK despite the imposition of a travel ban from affected countries, a leading epidemiologist has warned.
Prof John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he would find it “unusual” if the second of two new variants from Brazil was not already present, despite it not yet being detected.
The first variant has a small number of mutations, and eight cases of this variant have been confirmed in the UK, but this is not the “variant of concern”, leading virologist Prof Wendy Barclay said on Friday.
The second, which has been detected in Manaus and in travellers arriving in Japan – and is thought to be more infectious – has not been detected in the UK so far.
The government banned flights from South America, Portugal and Cape Verde on Thursday in response to the emergence of the new variant, having previously banned travel from South Africa because of a new variant. All quarantine-free travel into the UK will also be suspended on Monday in an attempt to keep out others.
The new policy means arrivals from every destination will need to self-isolate for 10 days, or receive a negative result from a coronavirus test taken at least five days after they enter the UK.
Edmunds told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In terms of the South African one, we had imported cases already by the time we put in additional restrictions for South African travellers.
“For the Brazilian one … I don’t think there is evidence that we’ve imported cases of the Manaus strain, as far as I’m aware at least, but it is likely that we probably have quite honestly. We are one of the most connected countries in the world so I would find it unusual if we hadn’t imported some cases into the UK.”
Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said there would be lots of new coronavirus variants this year but the current vaccines should protect against those circulating in the UK.
He told Today: “As we look forward through 2021, we’re going to see lots of new variants and we’re going to have to get used to that.
“But the critical question is whether some of these new variants are adapting because of immunity amongst human populations – whether that is because of infection … or indeed as a result of vaccination.”
But he said that new variants were being detected early. “If indeed we do need to make new vaccines we will be able to stand those up really quickly,” he said.