The mutation that has been found on the Kent variant of Covid-19 in Bristol is not thought to make the variant any more infectious or dangerous, public health experts have said.
But work is being carried out to understand more about the E484K mutation, identify whether there are any more cases related to the cluster in Bristol, and decide whether house-to-house testing might be necessary to prevent its spread.
In the meantime, people are advised to continue to follow the lockdown rules, because they are driving down the spread of the disease overall in Bristol.
Bristol’s public health director Christina Gray teamed up with Dominic Mellon from Public Health England (PHE) South West, to brief local journalists on the situation this morning (February 3).
It came after news yesterday that 11 cases of the mutated form of the Kent variant had been identified in Bristol.
Ms Gray said: “As part of the routine sampling and analysis that Public Health England does, a number of cases have been identified in our local area which carry a particular mutation…E484K.
“It’s not a new variant, in and of itself. It’s a mutation which attaches itself to different variants and for that reason, it’s of interest and concern nationally.
“Further investigation clearly is required and we are working with PHE…to undertake the further investigatory work and that includes enhanced contact tracing, additional laboratory analysis and possibly additional testing.
“So we’re not necessarily going to be going out testing in the community.
“The door-to-door testing would come if at some point during this process it was thought it would be useful to do wider sampling within the community in some way.
“We’re not at that point yet. We’re still investigating the cases we’ve got and the rings of people around that.”
Ms Gray and Mr Mellon said it would be “inappropriate” to say whereabouts in Bristol the cases were and whether any of them were linked.
But Ms Gray said the cases were “scattered” across the area and not in a “tight cluster”.
Why is the E484K mutation of concern?
Viruses naturally mutate as they reproduce and circulate in the community.
The original Kent variant lacks the E484K mutation and has been circulating for some time. It is thought to be around 70 per cent more infectious than the first Covid-19 strain identified in the pandemic.
The effect of the E484K mutation is still unclear, but it is popping up in various Covid-19 variants, including the Kent and South African ones and a number in Liverpool.
Mr Mellon said, at this stage, there is no reason to think the mutation is making the Kent variant any more infectious or dangerous.
“At the moment we’re investigating it and we’re taking it very seriously because we’re seeing it emerge both in Bristol, in our UK [Kent] variant strain, but also in different variants of concern within the Liverpool area,” he said.
The information gathered will help to build a “stronger and richer picture” about the mutant variant and will underpin decisions about whether any extra measures, such as house-to-house testing, are needed in Bristol.
“We’re not going to, in any way, delay making decisions about interventions that can be seen to work by trying to get the best and most perfect picture of what’s going on,” Mr Mellon said.
“We will of course react appropriately and make sure that we’re doing the most appropriate thing for the Bristol population, but at the moment it’s not something that we’re currently planning.”
What is ‘enhanced surveillance’?
Mr Mellon explained the work that was being carried out to understand more about the mutated variant and how it is spreading.
He said: “We are gathering additional information through contact tracing, and what we call ‘enhanced surveillance’ – asking more questions of the people that we know have had this particular variant with a mutation – and making sure that we’ve got as much information as possible.
“[We’re] re-interviewing those people, finding out more about their particular circumstances, who they’ve been in contact with, the areas that they’ve been in, so that we can look at links and establish whether there’s potential networks of transmission which gives us a better idea then about how we can target our communications and the kind of interventions that we might want to consider.”
In some cases, extra testing will be carried out to confirm the genetic fingerprint of the virus and understand more about the antibody response, he said.
Overall, it’s ‘good news’ for Bristol
Ms Gray stressed that overall, rates of coronavirus were dropping in Bristol.
“Overall, it’s very positive news for us in Bristol. Our case rate is declining day on day…and does seem to be translating into a reduction in [hospital] admissions.”
She said the infection rate was falling by about five per cent about day and was now “well below” 300 per 100,000, down from close to 500 per 100,000.
But the city is still seeing about 155 cases a day, so residents must continue to follow the lockdown rules and follow the principles of “hands, face, space”, she said.
Admissions to hospital are falling slowly but there are still about 350 people with Covid in hospitals across the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Southmead Hospital and Weston General Hospital.