Britain to help other countries track down coronavirus variants

FILE PHOTO: A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus linked to the Wuhan outbreak, shared with Reuters on February 18, 2020. NEXU Science Communication/via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will share its genomic sequencing capabilities with other countries to help quicker identify new variants of the coronavirus in places with less ability to do so, its health ministry said on Tuesday.

New variants of the coronavirus have alarmed scientists, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the prospect of a “vaccine-busting” variant could mean that lockdown measures are needed for longer and new travel restrictions are introduced.

Britain said it had carried out more than half the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences submitted to a global database, and would launch a New Variant Assessment Platform which could be used for coronavirus variants and also future pandemics.

“Our New Variant Assessment Platform will help us better understand this virus and how it spreads, and will also boost global capacity to understand coronavirus, so we’re all better prepared for whatever lies ahead,” Health Minister Matt Hancock will say in a speech at Chatham House, according to advance extracts released by the health ministry.

The three major variants of concern identified so far were discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. All three variants are thought to be more transmissible.

The variant discovered in Britain could also be associated with higher mortality, although the evidence around that is uncertain.

Scientist have also highlighted particular concern that vaccines might not work as well against the variants found in South Africa and Brazil.

Moderna said on Monday it believe its COVID-19 vaccine protects against the British and South African variants, although it will test a new booster shot aimed at the South Africa variant after concluding the antibody response could be diminished.

Britain’s health minister and health officials have said they believe the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines being rolled out in the country work against the UK variant.

Reporting by Alistair Smout