A new Covid-19 variant that some scientists say is more resistant to existing vaccines has been discovered in at least 13 countries - including France - as the UK, South African and Brazilian variants continue to spread.
The new variant - named B.1.525 - was discovered by researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It appears to be a similar version of the virus as two other significant strains; the South African and Brazilian variants.
These are considered to be more contagious and more resistant to the existing global vaccines than the previous strain.
In contrast, the UK variant - named B.1.1.7 - is also known to be more contagious, but so far appears to be responding to the vaccines. The latest figures from health authority Santé publique France (SPF), from February 19, show that 36% of new cases in France are suspected to be of the UK variant (20I/501Y.V1).
Already five cases of the brand new variant have already been discovered in France, along with 39 cases in the UK, 35 in Denmark, 29 in Nigeria, and 10 in the US. The variant is suspected to be present in at least 13 countries.
Its origin is not yet clear. It is said to be part of the same genetic mutation as its “cousin” variants, the South African and Brazilian strains.
This mutation is named E484K, and makes the virus better at penetrating host cells, and more resistant to the existing vaccines, scientists have said.
Yet, because this variant is the third to come from the E484K mutation, researchers already have the information required to alter the new generation of vaccines to better fight the new threat, and can prioritise the mutation in any new work.
The EU has already announced that it will allow new versions of already-approved vaccines, which are designed to fight the new variants, to be fast-tracked for approval, without requiring them to follow the potentially-slower usual channels.
Variant spread in France
It comes after Health Minister Olivier Véran and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have both said that the new variants are “very worrying”.
The latest SPF figures show that 5% of new Covid-19 cases are of the South African or Brazilian variant. Including the UK variant cases, it estimates that 41% of all new cases in France are either of the UK, South African, or Brazilian variant.
The rest are still cases of the previous “normal” virus.
Current figures suggest that there are major geographical disparities when it comes to the presence of the variants in France.
For example, SPF has drawn a departmental map of the current status of the UK variant across the country which shows significant differences, sometimes even among departments that are next or near to each other.
UK variant map
It shows that the UK variant accounts for more than 50% of cases in the Nord, Eure, Eure-et-Loire, Aube, Ille-et-Vilaine, Morbihan, Indre-et-Loire, Vienne, Var, and Haute-Corse.
In contrast, it accounts for fewer than 10% of cases in Vosges, Saône-et-Loire, Allier, Creuse, Landes, Aveyron, and Ariège.
South African and Brazilian variants map
These variants are spreading much less so far, with no apparent link to the spread of the UK variant.
The highest numbers - more than 10% of tests - are currently in Calvados, Val-d’Oise, Meuse, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Moselle, Vosges, Haut-Rhin, Dordogne, Lot, Savoie, and the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.
The departments with the fewest numbers of these variants are Nievre, Creuse, Haute-Loire, Ardèche, Haute-Corse, Hautes-Alpes, Landes, Aveyron, Hautes-Pyrénées, and Pyrénées-Orientales.
The UK variant appears to be spreading more among younger children aged 0-9, and adults ages 30-39, dropping with age, to just 20% among those aged 90 or over.
The South African and Brazilian variants are spreading more among those aged 20-29, and 60-69.