The United Kingdom has suspended travel from Portugal by saying the threat of the new Nepal variant of the coronavirus is behind their decision.
What is the new variant and should we be concerned?
What is the new variant?
The so-called Nepal COVID variant is a mutation of the Delta variant, first identified in India. There are thousands of variants of coronavirus but public health experts focus only on those that have worrying mutations or are showing signs of being dangerous.
These are called “variants under investigation” or “variants of concern”. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), there is no Nepal variant under investigation or variant of concern. Delta, or the Indian variant, remains a “variant of concern”.
The virus spread to Nepal and while the country does very little genomic sequencing, the variants that were identified included a case of the Delta variant, which carried a mutation called K417N. This has become known as the ‘Nepal variant’.
British transport secretary Grant Shapps said the UK removed Portugal from the travel green list because of rising positivity rates and “a sort of Nepal mutation of the Indian variant that’s been detected”.
What does the WHO say?
Interestingly, the WHO has not yet officially recognised the discovery of K417N. The global agency said it was “not aware of any new variant of SARS-CoV-2 being detected in Nepal”. Nepal’s health ministry also says it has no knowledge of any new variant originating in the nation.
The UK has offered genomics expertise to help other countries identify new COVID-19 variants. It has launched the New Variant Assessment Platform and has offered laboratory capacity and advice to analyse new strains of coronavirus.
Samples of the Delta variant with this extra change have been reported in about 90 cases worldwide. Of these, 12 cases were spotted in Portugal, 36 in the UK, 12 in the US and four in India.
Should we be concerned?
This change to the virus’s spike protein is also seen in the Beta or South African variant. It is thought to be part of why that variant is more resistant to vaccines.
Scientists are always assessing data on whether the vaccines currently available will be effective against any new variant. The ones currently being rolled out are expected to provide some protection against new strains of COVID-19.
Experts are also confident that in the event any of the vaccines prove to be less effective against one or more variants, it will be possible to change their composition and improve efficacy.
If a distinctive set of changes, or variant, appears to be spreading better, making people sicker or resisting vaccines, then it will be upgraded to being a “variant of concern”. This hasn’t happened with the mutation identified in Nepal so far.