A new coronavirus variant that may partially evade vaccine-triggered immunity and was first spotted in New York is already in Britain, health chiefs confirmed today.
And swabbing suggests the variant — dubbed B.1.526 — may have been lurking here for at least a month.
Scientists tracking the constantly-evolving virus say three cases of the mutant strain — which has caused havoc in New York — have been picked up in the UK.
Public Health England bosses claim the virus would have been spotted in travellers quarantining in hotels after flying into Britain. They did not deny it has already been detected three times in the UK.
The US is not on Number 10’s quarantine ‘red list’, with arrivals instead asked to self-isolate at home for 10 days.
Many samples of B.1.526 detected in New York contain the troublesome E484K mutation, and a slew of other changes, which scientists say can make jabs slightly less effective.
This is because the mutation changes the shape of the virus’s outer spike protein – which it uses to invade cells – in a way that makes it difficult for the body to recognise.
But PHE says none of the three cases found in the UK contain the E484K mutation or the S677N mutation that was also spotted in New York.
The agency, which has yet to designate the strain as a variant of concern, told MailOnline it was ‘monitoring the situation closely’.
A spokesperson added: ‘We are working with partners across the world to identify and mitigate the impact of variants as they emerge.’
Three cases of the New York variant have been identified in the UK, which may have been here for at least a month. They carry the E484K mutation, which can make vaccines less effective
The New York variant is centred in the US, but cases have also been detected in Britain, Germany, Ireland and Croatia according to databases
The US has registered the most cases of the New York variant, official figures show. Infectious diseases experts there fear it could dodge vaccine-triggered immunity
NEW YORK COVID VARIANT: Q & A
Should I be concerned?
The New York variant carries the E484K, which studies have shown can make vaccines less effective.
But none of the three cases that were detected in the UK had this mutation.
Ministers also did not spark surge testing in response to the cases, suggesting they judged the risk to be lower than that posed by the South African and Brazilian strains.
Public Health England also claimed the cases may have been detected in travellers who were self-isolating.
The last case detected in Europe of the strain was also on February 27, or almost a month ago, suggesting it has failed to gain a foothold in the country.
Where have the cases been detected?
Britain has only identified three cases of the New York strain.
Public Health England has not revealed where these cases were identified, but suggested they may be in travellers who were quarantining after arriving in the UK from abroad.
Can the strain dodge vaccine-triggered immunity?
Experts in the US have suggested the strain may be able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity.
They say it carries mutations similar to the South African variant, which studies have suggested can get around jab-triggered abtibodies.
Dr Anthony Fauci, a top US diseases expert, says New York should try to snuff out all cases.
It is not clear where Britain’s cases were found because PHE does not give away any further details.
But Pango lineages — which publishes figures on the number of variants identified by sequencing across the world — says Europe’s first case was detected on January 21, and the most recent was on February 27.
It is not clear whether either of these cases were in Britain.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virus expert at the University of Warwick, said any variant was a ’cause for concern’.
‘This find reinforces how important it is to keep an eye on things, we are not out of the woods yet,’ he told MailOnline.
‘It reinforces the fact that while things are looking really good right now there is no room for complacency.’
He added: ‘We need to keep Test and Trace going and stamp out what are inevitably going to be local outbreaks.’
New York’s public health officials have warned the strain shares key similarities with the worrisome South African variant, and can elude ‘some protection’ from jabs.
America’s top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci says the strain can dodge ‘some of the protection of antibodies, as well as the vaccine’.
He also warned that it is spreading ‘pretty efficiently’ in the city.
New York city data showed cases have plateaued over the past week. There were 2,808 cases on Saturday, compared to 2,886 the same time the week before.
Ministers launched door-to-door testing in dozens of postcodes when cases of the South African and Brazilian variants were found in the UK, in an attempt to stamp out all cases.
But they are yet to spark the same action for this strain, suggesting they are not as concerned by the variant.
Boris Johnson has set out four key criteria for lifting lockdown in the coming months, including that there are no risky new variants emerging.
Three other European countries have reported cases of the B.1.526 variant, including Ireland (five), Croatia (three) and Germany (one), according to the database.
Britain has a superior sequencing capacity compared to other countries, which is now allowing it to check half of all virus cases detected for strains.
But its world-leading ability led to it becoming an international pariah last year after it raised the flag about the more infectious Kent variant, causing other countries to close their borders.
Experts say Britain was likely ‘caught out’ by its sequencing, and that it was possible the variant emerged elsewhere before being spotted in the UK.
The US has so far recorded as many as 2,565 cases of the New York variant.
The former head of the US medicines regulator, Dr Scott Gottlieb, warned yesterday it shared key mutations with the South African variant, which has been shown to re-infect people ‘in certain cases’.
The expert added on CBS: ‘What we don’t understand with B.1.526 is whether or not people are being re-infected with it and whether or not people who might have been vaccinated are now getting infected with it.’
Dr Anthony Fauci (left), a top US diseases expert, has warned the New York variant could get around vaccines. And Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the US drugs regulator, warned it shares key mutations with the South African variant
Britain recorded 5,312 Covid cases yesterday, which was a 15 per cent rise on the same time the week before, and bringing the country’s total to 38,145 new infections recorded last week
And 33 Covid deaths were registered, a drop of more than a third on the week before
It comes after MailOnline revealed the UK is now sequencing half of all Covid cases found through testing to check for variants that could delay the lockdown exit.
Scientists tasked with tracking the ever-evolving virus have been sequencing more than 20,000 positive swabs a week for strains since February.
But fewer than 40,000 positive Covid tests were detected last week, meaning No10 is now getting a clearer picture of the spread of variants.
Scientists say it is crucial to keep an eye out for variants, which may make vaccines slightly less effective. The Government is aiming to eventually screen every positive test for variants.
Ministers have warned the emergence of new mutant Covid strains could threaten the ‘roadmap’ back to normality, amid fears they may spark a surge in infections or evade the current crop of jabs.
Europe is currently suffering a spike in cases of the South African variant, which has been spotted 351 times in the UK but yet to gain a foothold.
The revelation the New York variant is in Britain also comes six days after Public Health England announced a variant linked to travel to the Philippines has also landed on Britain’s shores.
The strain, which has been named P.3, has a number of concerning mutations that are also present on the South African, Brazilian and Kent variants.
It was picked up in two people in England, PHE said, one of whom had international travel links.
The other case is still under investigation and it’s not clear if the pair knew each other. All of their close contacts have been reached and told to isolate.
The P.3 variant contains the spike mutations E484K, found on the Brazilian and South African versions, and N501Y, also present on the Kent strain. Those alterations help make the virus more transmissible and evade antibodies.