One Brazilian coronavirus variant has been detected in the UK, a leading virologist has said.
Professor Wendy Barclay, head of G2P-UK National Virology Consortium, a new project set up to study the effects of emerging coronavirus mutations, said one of the two Brazilian variants of coronavirus has been detected in the UK.
She said: “There are two different types of Brazilian variants and one of them has been detected and one of them has not.”
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She added: “In the databases, if you search the sequences, you will see that there is some some evidence for variants from around the world, and I believe including the Brazilian one, which probably was introduced some time ago.
“And that will be being traced very carefully.”
It comes after transport secretary Grant Shapps said he was “not aware” of any cases of the Brazilian coronavirus variant in the UK as travellers from across South America were banned from entry.
The ban, which also covers the Central American state of Panama and Portugal – due to its strong travel links with Brazil – and the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, came into force at 4am on Friday.
Scientists analysing the Brazilian variant believe the mutations it shares with the new South African strain are associated with a rapid increase in cases in locations where there have already been large outbreaks of the disease.
British and Irish nationals and others with residence rights are exempted from the measures that were backed by the Scottish and Welsh governments, though they must self-isolate for 10 days along with their households on their return.
Mr Shapps described the ban as a “precautionary” measure to ensure the vaccination programme rolling out across the UK was not disrupted by new variants of the virus.
Asked if the Brazilian strain was currently in the country, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Not as far as we are aware, I think, at this stage.
“There haven’t been any flights that I can see from the last week from Brazil, for example.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, an epidemiologist who advises the Government on its scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling group, said the UK was late in imposing the travel ban but that it should minimise the risk from the “more transmissible” variant.
“We always have this issue with travel bans of course, that we’re always a little bit behind the curve,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“My understanding is that there haven’t really been any flights coming from Brazil for about the past week, so hopefully the immediate travel ban should really minimise the risk.”
Dr Tildesley said although scientists “don’t believe there is anything to worry about” in terms of vaccine efficacy, the higher transmissibility could mean “people potentially might end up developing severe symptoms more rapidly which could cause more issues with our health service”.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the ban, which includes an exemption for hauliers travelling from Portugal to allow the transport of essential goods, was a “necessary step” but accused ministers of incompetence and “lurching from one crisis and rushed announcement to another”.
Mr Shapps was also forced to defend the delay in requiring negative tests from travellers before they head to the UK from Friday until Monday as a “small grace period” needed to prevent a “repatriation crisis”.
The latest official figures showed a further 1,248 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK as of Thursday.