UK COVID-19 Update: Brazil Variant of Concern, and Vaccine Rollout for Over 60s

Peter Russell

March 01, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Testing and Tracing Underway for Brazil Variant of Concern

Health officials are trying to trace one of the first people in the UK believed to have contracted a 'variant of concern' of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The individual is one of up to 6 cases of the variant first identified in Manaus, Brazil.

Three cases of the P.1 variant were found in England and 3 in Scotland.

Two of the cases in England were traced to one household in South Gloucestershire where an individual returned from Brazil on February 10 before hotel quarantine measures were introduced. The traveller had been isolating at home with their household since returning to the UK.

Public Health England (PHE) said it was following up with all passengers on Swiss Air flight LX318, which flew from Sao Paulo to London Heathrow via Zurich.

It was also working in collaboration with South Gloucestershire Council and NHS Test and Trace to deploy surge asymptomatic testing, as well as increasing sequencing of positive samples from the area.

Further investigation is currently underway to trace another air passenger from Brazil who undertook a test on February 12 or 13. Their identity remains a mystery as they did not complete their test registration card, PHE said.

Scotland's cases involve three Scottish residents who flew from Brazil to Aberdeen via Paris and London in February. The Scottish Government said other passengers were being contacted. Meanwhile, health protection teams were assessing each case and their contacts, and arranging protective measures for a small number of individuals who might have been exposed.

The three cases, all in the North West of Scotland, are not connected to the three cases in England.

The P1 'Brazilian' variant is a descendent of B.1.1.28. It was first detected in Japan but is most closely associated with the second wave epidemic in Manaus, Brazil.

It was designated a variant of concern because it shares some important mutations with the variant first identified in South Africa (B.1.351), including E484K and N501Y.

It is believed that the E484K mutation could provide some escape from immune recognition, although there is no indication that it causes more severe COVID-19.

Speaking on a visit to Stoke-on-Trent, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "We have no reason not to think that our vaccines are effective against these variants of concern at the present time."

Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, told the Science Media Centre: "Recent reports from Manaus in Brazil, where the P.1 variant is fuelling a surge in infections, suggest that this variant is responsible for re-infecting individuals who were previously infected with a different variant of the virus. 

"That's why it's even more important to do everything to stop the spread of this virus and all other variants including strict border controls and an efficient test, trace and isolate system."

Nick Loman, professor of microbial genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Birmingham, said the recent set of infections would "need rapid epidemiological investigations to establish if there are further linked cases".

SARS-CoV-2 Antibodies in School Staff

There is no statistical evidence of a difference between school staff in England testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies compared with the wider working-age population in the same areas, latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest.

Estimated infection levels were derived from round 2 of the Schools Infection Survey carried out between December 2 and 10 in 41 primary and 80 secondary schools.

It found that 14.6% of primary staff and 15.7% of secondary staff tested positive for antibodies.

That was slightly higher than the 12.6% of primary staff and 12.3% of secondary staff in round 2, which sampled schools between November 3 and 19.

Overall, 14.99% of staff tested positive for antibodies, lower than the estimate of 18.22% for working-age adults, the ONS figures showed.

Fiona Dawe, deputy director of the schools infection studies, said: "We are seeing slightly higher numbers of infections in secondary schools than in primary schools. However, the difference is not statistically significant.

"Similarly, the prevalence of antibodies in school staff was similar to that of working age adults in the local community. We found no evidence of a statistical difference in the infection risk for school staff."

In the 15 local authorities involved, Manchester had the highest secondary school positivity rate at 27.95%, compared with the lowest, Reading, at 2.86%.

Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health at University College London, and a member of the Government's SAGE committee, commented: "In essence the study suggests that school levels of infection in late 2020 were similar to community levels for both adults and children. This suggests that schools are not amplifiers of infection, as some have feared, but that school infections largely reflect community virus levels.

"Unfortunately, the study as set up cannot be directly informative about transmission between children and from children to staff."

The survey was conducted by the ONS in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Public Health England.

Lateral Flow Tests for Students

Secondary school and college students will be tested twice a week for COVID-19 once schools reopen for face-to-face learning from March 8, the Government announced.

Students will initially receive three rapid lateral flow tests at their school or college before transitioning to twice weekly home testing.

Twice-weekly testing will also be offered to adults working in the wider school community, including bus drivers and after school club leaders.

The free tests will also be available for childcare and support bubbles. Testing will be encouraged but will not be mandatory.

Anyone who tests positive will need a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result of their home test.

Primary school children will not be regularly tested as long as they remain asymptomatic, due to low levels of transmission between younger aged children, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: "These rapid tests help uncover hidden cases of the virus and break chains of transmission, stopping outbreaks before they occur."

The lateral flow test kits are being made available to parents from today and can be ordered online or picked up from designated test sites.

Vaccines for 60 to 63 Year Olds

Almost two million people aged 60 to 63 in England can now expect an invitation to book a COVID-19 vaccine.

From today, they will start receiving letters explaining how to book a vaccine through the national booking service, NHS England said.

A total of 20,275,451 people in the UK have so far been given a first dose of vaccine, and 815,816 a second dose.

Another 5455 UK positive tests and 104 deaths were reported.

The estimated R number was 0.6 to 0.9 with a daily infection growth rate range of -6% to -2% as of February 26.

COVID Vaccine 'Less Effective in Obese People'

The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine could be less effective in obese people, according to a study preprint.

The research involved 248 heath workers at the Istituti Fisioterapici Ospitalieri in Italy who had received two doses of the vaccine.

It found that while those of a normal weight had a high antibody concentration of 325.84, those who were obese had an average of 167.05.

However, the study only included 26 obese people.

The researchers said that although further studies were needed, the data could have important implications for future vaccine strategies.

The research has yet to be peer reviewed.

BMA Warns on Pension Allowance

Media speculation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may be considering a freeze on the pension lifetime allowance could lead to many experienced doctors reducing their NHS workload, the British Medical Association (BMA) warned.

Recent reports have suggested that Rishi Sunak is drawing up plans for the freeze for his Budget on March 3.

In a letter to ministers, Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA Pensions Committee chair, writes: "Both the available annual allowance and lifetime allowance – including its annual indexed-linked increase – are carefully considered by senior NHS workers when determining their working patterns for the following year, and ultimately their retirement plans."

Dr Sharma said that if the reports were true, it could hamper NHS attempts to deal with a backlog of patients.


See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.


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