THE MUTANT variant of Covid-19 plaguing the UK has been in the US since November, a new study has revealed.
Experts have now revealed that the strain was in the US six weeks before British scientists flagged it as a "variant of concern".
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A study by experts at the University of Arizona tracked the variant which is called B117.
The variant first emerged in Kent in September and was one of the main reasons why the country had to go into a third national lockdown after the tier structures were unable to contain the spread.
The UK variant is over 70 per cent more transmissible than variants already circulating in the UK.
The study, published by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona found two clusters of the infection in the US.
One cluster was found in Florida on November 6 and the other in California on November 23.
The first discovery in the US was around six weeks before Sage told the government about its concerns about the new strain.
It may have been circulating in the US for close to two months before it was first detected, on 29 December 2020
In the US the first case of the Kent strain was diagnosed in December 29.
The experts said that the variant is able to "seed super spreader events".
The said: "It is not clear why the pace of replacement of non-B117 viruses might be different in California, Florida and England.
"We speculate on a few possibilities that need to be monitored as more data become available.
"One possibility is that B117’s transmission advantage may vary with mitigation intensity.
"Perhaps this lineage of SARS-CoV-2, with demonstrably higher viral loads in the upper airway than other variants, is able to seed superspreader events with relative ease when mitigation efforts are comparatively lax, but its transmission advantage is less acute when the playing field is levelled by, for example, widespread mask use and indoor crowd avoidance."
The publication of the study comes after it was yesterday revealed that a new strain had been detected in Germany.
It differs from the English variant and the South African strain that Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed on December 23.
As well as a South African and English strain, there are also two Brazilian strains in circulation, as well as a handful of strains that have been identified in the US.
The exact origin of the Kent variant is unknown and the experts said it was "striking" that the variant may have already been discovered in the US "some 5-6 weeks before B.1.1.7 was first identified as a variant of concern in the UK in mid-December".
They added: "And it may have been circulating in the US for close to two months before it was first detected, on 29 December 2020."
Mutations in viruses are common and one of the main concerns with the new variants is whether or not vaccines already in circulation would protect people from Covid-19.
Vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca are currently being rolled out across the UK.
It was today revealed that the Pfizer vaccine is likely to protect against the mutant strain of coronavirus first discovered in the UK.
In the new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers collected blood samples from 16 people who had received the Pfizer vaccine in previous clinical trials.
They found that a lab-made version of the virus – with all the mutations resembling the B.1.1.7 variant – was neutralised by antibodies.
The researchers said their results indicate its is "unlikely that the B117 lineage will escape BNT162b2-mediated (Pfizer/BionTech vaccine) protection".
A similar study from the pharmaceutical giant earlier this month showed the vaccine to be effective against a key mutation called N501Y.
The mutation is present in the UK variant, as well as another highly transmissible new variant that has emerged in South Africa.
The Arizona researchers said that the cases of the new strain found in the US also share similar smaller mutations.
This they say – is seen in just 1.2 per cent of European cases.
The experts added that the infections could descend from a single event. The variant is said to account for around 60 per cent of UK cases.
At present it is responsible for 0.3 per cent of cases in the US, but between December 27 and January 2, only 0.4 per cent of cases were of the Kent variant.
During the same time frame in the UK they were at 1.2 per cent.
The study has not yet been peer-reviewed but the experts said the study highlights the importance of genome sequencing and how it is used to detect new variants.
They concluded: "Given how rapidly new variants can spread across the globe due to air travel, and how long even variants with reportedly increased transmission rates can remain undetected after becoming established in new regions, it is essential that all countries continue efforts to reduce transmission."
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