On 3 February it was confirmed that a number of cases of a new variant of COVID-19 had been identified in the Liverpool City Region (including Knowsley), Warrington and Lancashire.
Since this announcement was made the media has been full of stories about new variants of COVID-19 across the country, where they have been detected, what is being done to tackle them and lots of speculation about what this means for people and for the vaccine.
We talked to Knowsley’s Director of Public Health, Dr Sarah McNulty for an update and to help clear up confusion for the borough’s residents.
What has happened?
Since before Christmas 2020, new variants of COVID-19 have been found in various areas of the UK. Most people will be aware of the Kent variant in particular, which spread widely across the country over Christmas and New Year. This variant has exactly the same symptoms as the original virus however, what we also know is that it is much easier to catch and pass on – part of the reason we have seen such high case numbers in January.
In the last few weeks more of these variants have been detected. This includes the South African variant (found in part of Southport and other areas of the UK), and a number of other variants that carry a mutation known as E484K. These have been found in the Liverpool City Region (including Knowsley) Lancashire, Warrington and other areas of the UK including Bristol and Manchester.
Should I be worried about these variants?
All virus’ change over time – it’s how they work. This is not something unexpected, but we do need to find out more about each variant or mutation to make sure we know as much as we can about how it spreads and what characteristics it has. For example, through investigation we learnt that the Kent variant was much more transmissible than the original virus which helped us to understand the spike in cases numbers.
There is a national group called NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) who are responsible for investigating these variants and advising the Government and the Chief Medical Officer and how to manage them. They are looking into all new variants and mutations on an ongoing basis and passing this information to local areas.
They current use a classification system to rate each variant in terms of concern level. It rates some mutations a ‘Variants under investigation’ (like the mutation found in Liverpool City Region) and others in the more serious category of being ‘Variants of Concern’ (like those currently found in Southport, Bristol and Manchester)
What do we know about the new version found here in Knowsley?
This mutation has been identified as a ‘Variant under Investigation’ by NERVTAG – which means it is being looked into in more detail. At present they have not upgraded it to be a ‘Variant of Concern.’
This strain of the virus contains the E484K mutation and is a variant of the original virus.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that this strain is more transmissible or results in more serious illness. However, there is considerable work ongoing to identify what impact this mutation has on antibodies within the vaccine.
How many cases are there?
Currently in the Liverpool City Region around 50 cases of this particular variant have been identified and a further 40 are being tested. Some of the cases identified do not appear to be linked but extensive contact tracing is underway to find out more.
What is being done to find out more about this variant?
Health colleagues and local authorities across the Liverpool City Region are awaiting further guidance from the Department for Health & Social Care to identify whether any specific measures or actions need to be implemented locally.
In the meantime, to enable all cases of E484K to be identified, local Directors of Public Health have requested that an increased proportion of symptomatic positive COVID-19 tests (PCR tests) are subject to further laboratory testing – known as genomic sequencing. This will identify which variant of the virus individuals have and allow us to find out how many cases we have in our local population.
Alongside this, we are asking residents displaying wider symptoms than the usual loss of taste and / or smell, fever and new or persistent cough, to get a COVID-19 test (until further notice). This includes anyone experiencing any of the following:-
- A persistent headache
- Fever and chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
We know that many people who have the virus have no symptoms at all but we also know that sometimes they present with other symptoms and we want to identify as many of those as possible.
If we have these symptoms, what should we do?
If you have any of these additional symptoms, we want you to get a test.To do this you can either ring 119 or go online at www.nhs.uk/coronavirus and book an appointment. If booking online, click the option to say you don’t have the classic symptoms but you’ve been asked to get a test by your local council or health professional.
If you have the three main symptoms of cough/ fever/ loss of smell or taste, you, along with your household, must start to self-isolate immediately and get a test.
At this stage we are not asking you to self-isolate if you have these wider symptoms (only if you receive a positive test and then you, people in your household, support bubble or close contacts should self-isolate for 10 days from the onset of your symptoms) but I would advise in all cases to stay at home at much as possible and limit any contact with other people until you have had your test and you have received your results.
Why are we not doing more testing, like in Southport?
The mutation of COVID we have identified in Knowsley is not classed as a ‘Variant of Concern’ so it has not triggered the need for additional local testing and door knocking as is happening in other areas.
That said, this is the current situation and it is being monitored very closely.
I think it is also important to remember that our testing rates in Knowsley are already amongst the highest in the Liverpool City Region and we already have a good local testing system in place for people with and without symptoms. Also, now that we have widened the symptom list we will, as a result, be testing more people.
What do we know about the other variants?
There is no evidence that the South African variant causes more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected with it but, as with the original version, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.
However, there are concerns that the South African variant can spread more readily and vaccines may not work quite as well against it.
The other strain – found in parts of Manchester and Bristol – carries the E484K mutation which can have an impact on antibodies within the vaccine. This strain is a version of the Kent variant and therefore there is some concern that this may be more transmissible within the population.
Work is ongoing to find out more.
What can we do to protect ourselves from these new variants?
This virus – in all its forms and mutations – thrives on human interaction so we have to stop that interaction and stay at home as much as possible.
Follow the rules closely and remember the basic advice to continue to wash your hands thoroughly, wear a face covering and keep your distance from others.
And of course, if you are eligible for a vaccine make sure you take up the opportunity.
The more the virus is circulating within a community the more likely it is for mutations and variants to arise, so we really need to concentrate on following the rules and supressing the virus in our communities.