Fast-spreading UK-variant of COVID-19 detected in Sri Lanka

A Sri Lankan university laboratory has detected the fast spreading B.1.1.7 (UK lineage) variant of the novel coronavirus in 92 samples obtained from different parts of the country, experts said.

Samples collected from January to the first week of February in Colombo, Awissawella, Ingiriiya, Biyagama, Wattala, Mathugama, Mannar and Vavuniya, as well as from a number of quarantine centres, were sequenced by researchers at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

“While most of the virus lineages belonged to the previously circulating B.1.411 lineage (Sri Lankan lineage), a few viruses belonging to the B.1.1.7 (UK lineage) were detected from Colombo, Avissawella, Biyagama and Vavuniya and from a few individuals in the quarantine centers,” Neelika Malavige, Professor in Microbiology, Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine University of Sri Jayewardenepura said.

Malavige is also Director of the Centre for Dengue Research.

“The B.1.1.7 is the currently rapidly transmissible variant currently circulating in the UK and many other countries. It is associated with a 50% higher transmissibility than the other SARS-CoV2 variants,” she said.

Malavige further said this variant does not have any mutations that affect the efficacy of the vaccine. However, further analysis is underway.

While the new variant may have been introduced from overseas, she said, the existing B.1.411 variant could’ve mutated itself owing to its wide and rapid spread in the country.

“While it is possible that the B.1.1.7 was introduced from overseas, given the widespread detection of the virus in Sri Lanka, it is possible that our circulating virus strain acquired these mutations de novo, as seen in many other countries, where there is intense transmission of the virus.

A ‘mutations de novo’ means a genetic alteration that is present for the first time in one family member as a result of a variant (or mutation), she said.

Meanwhile, Dr Chandima Jeewandara, Director Allergy Immunology and Cell Biology Unit, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, further clarified that this is the same variant that was found in the English cricketer who was in Sri Lanka recently but was not transmitted by him.

Echoing Malavige, Jeewandara said the new variant was either imported from overseas or the current variant mutated.

Jeewandara further explained that the recent surge in the COVID cases in the country could be a reason for this mutation but cannot say for sure unless further tests are carried out.

The UK variant has spread to over 50 countries at the moment and is a dominant strain in Britain and according to reports, it is mutating yet again.

Two other variants were also found, a South Africa variant which has spread to over 20 countries and a variant from Brazil.

According to a BBC report, the UK, South Africa and Brazil variants could be much more contagious. All three have undergone changes to their spike protein – the part of the virus which attaches to human cells. As a result, they seem to be better at infecting cells and spreading.

“Experts think the UK or “Kent” strain emerged in September and may be up to 70% more transmissible or infectious. The latest research by Public Health England puts it between 30% and 50%,” BBC said.

The South Africa variant, meanwhile, is expected to have emerged somewhere in October 2020. (Colombo/Feb12/2021)


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