Japan, Brazil, UK, South Africa: What We Know About COVID Variants

As new COVID mutations are reported from Japan, Brazil, UK and South Africa, what makes them different?

5 min read
Coronavirus variants: As new COVID mutations and variants are reported from Japan, Brazil, UK and South Africa, what makes them different?

A new coronavirus variant was detected in Japan in four travellers who came in from Brazil's Amazonas state, Japan's health ministry confirmed on Sunday.

Separately, Brazil reported a reinfection linked to the South Africa variant earlier in the week.

The variant found in Brazil, and in travellers from Brazil in Japan, differs from the highly contagious coronavirus variants found in the UK and South Africa.

While mutations in coronaviruses is common, what makes these four variants more of a concern than others?

Let's break down what we know about each of them.

Japan/Brazil Variant

At the moment, details remain sketchy. The Japanese health ministry official was quoted in The Japan Times as saying studies were underway into the efficacy of vaccines against the new variant.

"There is no proof showing the new variant found in those from Brazil is high in infectiousness,” Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), said in a press briefing.

The variant is believed to have at least 12 mutations in the spike protein, one of which is common with the UK and South Africa variant. The variant of the virus discovered in Japan belongs to the B.1.1.248 strain, reports CNBC.

The four had arrived from Brazil and tested positive at the airport quarantine.

Brazil's health ministry has reached for more details, including a genetic sequence of the new variant.

Japan has seen a steep rise in coronavirus cases in January, with emergency declared in Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures.

Reinfection in Brazil

A 45 year old woman in Brazil became the first women in the world to be reinfected with a mutation of the coronavirus that is linked to the South Africa variant, according to a report in Reuters. The mutation is known as E484K.

She had earlier tested positive in May, and then again in October.

The reinfection was determined after a detailed analysis of the genome of the two viruses. In this analysis, the sequence of RNA, the "prime" molecule of DNA, is compared to see if they are two different mutations.

According to reports, E484K has been reported in Brazil before, but this is the first case of reinfection.

“We observed, in the genetic sequence of the virus present in the second case, the mutation E484K, which is a mutation originally identified in South Africa and which has caused a lot of concern in the medical field, as it can hinder the action of antibodies against the virus,” Bruno Solano, lead author from the from the D’Or Research and Teaching Institute (IDOR), said.

Brazil is witnessing a massive second wave of the coronavirus, with more than 200,000 dead and 8 million confirmed cases.

UK Variant

A new and possibly more contagious variant of the coronavirus discovered in the United Kingdom raised alarm across the world, leading to lockdown in parts of England and travel restrictions imposed by several countries, including India in last week December.

The variant is believed to have been first detected in September. By November, around a quarter of cases in London were of the new variant. By mid December, the proportion reached two-thirds of the total infections, and over the last one week of December, the number of cases in London doubled, with at least 60 percent of the infections being from this variant.

The UK variant is named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020) and is defined by about 20 mutations. Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.

Notably, many of the mutations observed in the UK variant have been seen earlier during the pandemic. Yet, the UK variant is defined by an unusual number and combination of mutations.

According to a BBC report, three factors are causing concern over the new variant of COVID-19:

  • It is said to spread faster than the other versions – 70 percent more infectious

  • It is the most common version of the virus in the UK

  • There have been changes to the spike protein of the virus, which plays a key role in unlocking the doorway to the body's cells

While the variant is believed to be more infectious, as of now there is no proof it will cause more severe disease. FIT spoke to an expert on whether we should be worried about the UK variant, and this is what he had to say:

South Africa Variant

The new variant, called the 501.V2, emerged after the first wave of infections in Nelson Mandela Bay on the coast of the Eastern Cape Province in November-December 2020. Within weeks, it became the dominant coronavirus in both Eastern and Western Capes, according to a report by The Guardian.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mikhize announced on 18 December that the evidence collated strongly suggested that the current wave experienced in the country is being driven by the new variant.

“Clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture - in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no co-morbidities presenting with critical illness,” he tweeted.

Dr Richard Lessells, a leading infectious disease expert in South Africa and one of the specialists studying the new variant, said, “There are a few more concerns with our variant [than that in the UK] for the vaccine … But we are now doing the careful, methodical work in the lab to answer all the questions we have, and that takes time”, reported The Guardian.

“Putting our data together with that in the UK, this [South African] variant is a bit more effective at spreading from person to person and that is not good. It means we have to get a bit better at stopping it, ”Dr Richard Lessells said.

According to Reuters, Susan Hopkins from Public Health England also said that the new variant appears to be ‘very different’ and that it has got ‘different mutations’.

“Both of them look like they’re more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we’ve been studying that with great detail with academic partners. We’re still learning about the South African variant.”

It's important to note that more details about all these variants are still emerging. Vaccine makers have said that their current vaccines should be able to take care of various mutations, but till a detailed analysis is done, this cannot be confirmed. But as FIT has reported previously, what's needed is more epidemiological surveillance and genomic sequencing.

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