Case of South African Covid variant is detected in Middlesbrough

Case of South African Covid variant is detected in Middlesbrough as health chiefs urge everyone over 16 to get tested for the virus

  • Mutant strain identified as part of random sequencing by Public Health England
  • Those in the Marton and Coulby Newham areas who are 16+ urged to get tested
  • Data shows Middlesbrough currently has fifth highest infection rate in England 

Extra coronavirus testing will be carried out in Middlesbrough following the detection of a case of the South African variant.

The mutant coronavirus strain — which has now been spotted more than 200 times across the UK — was identified as part of random sequencing by Public Health England. 

The case is linked to the Marton and Coulby Newham areas, and an additional test centre has now been set up at the Parkway Centre in Coulby Newham with residents older than 16 urged to get tested.  

The site is open from 9am until 3pm and an appointment is not needed.  

According to Public Health England data, Middlesbrough currently has the fifth highest infection rate in England.

Extra coronavirus testing will be carried out in Middlesbrough following the detection of a case of the South African variant. Pictured: Testing at a drive-in COVID-19 testing centre at Chessington World of Adventures Resort theme park in April

As of February 8, the rate per 100,000 people stood at 357.5, down slightly from 359.6 the week before.

Esther Mireku, consultant in public health in Middlesbrough, said: ‘I urge everyone over the age of 16 in the Marton and Coulby Newham areas to come forward for a test. This will help us understand more about the potential spread of this new variant.

‘While the overall Covid infection rate in Middlesbrough has now halved from its peak in early January, it has still not decreased as much as we would have liked.

‘The high prevalence of Covid in the town, combined with the reporting of this variant, are a reminder to everyone of the importance of staying at home as much as possible and following hands-face-space when out for an essential reason.’

Local mayor Andy Preston said: ‘New variants are popping up in different towns and cities around the country.

‘What’s really important now is that we establish whether the variant has spread further around Middlesbrough.’

There are now six variants of coronavirus being investigated by Public Health England, five of which have already been found in the UK

Pictured: Volunteers go door-to-door with coronavirus home test kits in an effort to halt the new SARS-CoV-2 variant’s spread, in Ealing, West London on February 3

According to Public Health England data, Middlesbrough currently has the fifth highest infection rate in England. Pictured: Ealing this month

Surge testing has been used in a number of areas across the country in attempts to get on top of new variants of the disease.

People in areas of Lambeth in south London as well as parts of Worcestershire, Manchester, Kent and Surrey have all been offered tests when cases of new strains have been identified.    

Yesterday, surge Covid testing was rolled out in Staffordshire after another case of the South Africa variant was detected in a resident with no links to international travel.

So far, there have been more than 200 confirmed and probable cases of the South Africa variant found in the UK. 

Another mutation – dubbed the ‘Kent variant’ – was first found in the South-east of England in September, with scientists confirming it is much more transmissible than the original covid-19 strain which spread last spring.

There have been more than 59,000 cases of that variant tracked by the Government. 


The South African variant of coronavirus, known as B.1.351, has mutations on its outer spike proteins that change the shape of the virus in a way that makes it look different to the body than older versions of the virus.

Because the immune system’s antibodies are so specific, any change in the part of the virus that they attach to – in this case the spikes – can affect how well they can do so.

Current vaccines have been developed using versions of the virus from a year ago, which didn’t have the mutations the South African variant does, so scientists are worried the immunity they create won’t be good enough to stop it.

Here’s what we know about the vaccines and the variant so far:

Oxford/AstraZeneca (Approved; Being used in the UK)

Research published in February claimed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to have a ‘minimal effect’ against the South African variant.

A study of 2,000 people by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg found that two doses of the jab may only offer 10-20 per cent protection against mild or moderate Covid-19.

The study was controversial, however – nobody in the test group developed severe Covid-19 but the researchers said this ‘could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk’. Participants’ average age was 31 and they were otherwise healthy. 

Scientists working on the vaccine said they still believe it will be protective. 

Oxford and AstraZeneca said they are already working on a booster jab targeted at the South African variant and that it will be ready by autumn.

Pfizer/BioNTech (Approved; Being used in the UK)

Two studies suggest that Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine will protect against the South African variant, although its ability to neutralise the virus is lower.

One by Pfizer itself and the University of Texas found that the mutations had ‘small effects’ on its efficacy. In a lab study on the blood of 20 vaccine recipients they found a reduction in the numbers of working antibodies to tackle the variant, but it was still enough to destroy the virus, they said. 

Another study by New York University has made the same finding on 10 blood samples from people who had the jab. That team said there was a ‘partial resistance’ from the variant and that a booster should be made, but that it would still be more effective than past infection with another variant.

Pfizer is developing an updated version of its jab to tackle the variant. 

Moderna (Approved; Delivery expected in March)

Moderna said its vaccine ‘retains neutralizing activity’ in the face of the South African variant.

In a release in January the company said it had tested the jab on the blood of eight people who had received it and found that antibody levels were significantly lower when it was exposed to the South Africa variant, but it still worked.

It said: ‘A six-fold reduction in neutralizing [antibodies] was observed with the B.1.351 variant relative to prior variants. Despite this reduction, neutralizing levels with B.1.351 remain above levels that are expected to be protective.’

Moderna is working on a booster jab to tackle the South African variant.

Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (Awaiting approval; 30m doses)

Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has trialled its vaccine in South Africa and found it prevented 57 per cent of Covid cases.

This was the lowest efficacy the company saw in its global trials – in Latin America it was 66 per cent and in the US 72 per cent. These differences are likely in part due to the variants in circulation.

The vaccine was 85 per cent effective at stopping severe disease and 100 per cent effective at stopping death from Covid-19, even in South Africa where the variant is dominant, Janssen said.


Real name: B.1.351

When and where was it discovered? 

Scientists first noticed in December 2020 that the variant, named B.1.351, was genetically different in a way that could change how it acts.

It was picked up through random genetic sampling of swabs submitted by people testing positive for the virus, and was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay, around Port Elizabeth. 

What mutations did scientists find?

There are two key mutations on the South African variant that appear to give it an advantage over older versions of the virus – these are called N501Y and E484K.

Both are on the spike protein of the virus, which is a part of its outer shell that it uses to stick to cells inside the body, and which the immune system uses as a target.

They appear to make the virus spread faster and may give it the ability to slip past immune cells that have been made in response to a previous infection or a vaccine. 

What does N501Y do? 

N501Y changes the spike in a way which makes it better at binding to cells inside the body.

This means the viruses have a higher success rate when trying to enter cells when they get inside the body, meaning that it is more infectious and faster to spread.

This corresponds to a rise in the R rate of the virus, meaning each infected person passes it on to more others.

N501Y is also found in the Kent variant found in England, and the two Brazilian variants of concern – P.1. and P.2.

What does E484K do?

The E484K mutation found on the South African variant is more concerning because it tampers with the way immune cells latch onto the virus and destroy it.

Antibodies – substances made by the immune system – appear to be less able to recognise and attack viruses with the E484K mutation if they were made in response to a version of the virus that didn’t have the mutation.

Antibodies are extremely specific and can be outwitted by a virus that changes radically, even if it is essentially the same virus.

South African academics found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to the new variant. One researcher said it was ‘clear that we have a problem’.

Vaccine makers, however, have tried to reassure the public that their vaccines will still work well and will only be made slightly less effective by the variant. 

How many people in the UK have been infected with the variant?  

At least 200 Brits have been infected with this variant, according to Public Health England’s random sampling.

The number is likely to be far higher, however, because PHE has only picked up these cases by randomly scanning the genetics of around 15 per cent of all positive Covid tests in the UK. 

Where else has it been found?

According to the PANGO Lineages website, the variant has been officially recorded in 31 other countries worldwide.  

The UK has had the second highest number of cases after South Africa itself.  

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