The new Brazilian strain of coronavirus is likely to have already entered the UK, before the government’s imposition of travel restrictions on the South American country, a leading epidemiologist has warned.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he would find it “unusual” if the variant, which has raised concerns around the world because of its increased virulence, was not in the UK.
And he said it was possible that the mutated variant is more dangerous to human health because - like a separate strain emerging from South Africa - it may be able to “evade the immune response to some extent”.
The Brazilian variant is believed to have originated from the city of Manaus, one of the areas in the world worst hit by the first wave of Covid-19, where a high proportion of the population had been thought to have developed a degree of immunity by being infected and recovering.
Eight cases of a separate and less concerning Brazilian variant have already been identified in the UK.
But no cases of the Manaus strain have yet been detected in the community, though samples are present for examination under tight security by scientists at Porton Down.
The government banned flights from South America, Portugal and Cape Verde on Thursday in response to the emergence of the new variant, having previously banned travel from South Africa because of a new Covid strain.
In addition, all quarantine-free travel into the UK will be suspended on Monday in a bid to keep out other variants.
But Prof Edmunds, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In terms of the South African one, we had imported cases already by the time we put in additional restrictions for South African travellers.
“For the Brazilian one… I don’t think there is evidence that we’ve imported cases of the Manaus strain, as far as I’m aware at least, but it is likely that we probably have quite honestly.
“We are one of the most connected countries in the world so I would find it unusual if we hadn’t imported some cases into the UK.”
Labour accused the Government of “closing the door after the horse has bolted”, saying the announcement was too late to have stopped the arrival of “worrying” strains.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told ministers to get a “comprehensive plan and to act in a proper, strategic way, not in the short-term chaotic way we’ve seen over the past twelve months”.
But aviation minister Robert Courts insisted that the new action amounted to “toughening up already tough requirements”.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said there would be lots of new coronavirus variants this year but the current vaccines should protect against the strains circulating in the UK.
He said that new variants were being detected early, and stressed: “If indeed we do need to make new vaccines we will be able to stand those up really quickly.”