LONDON - Britain launched an emergency program of door-to-door testing in several areas Tuesday following the discovery of hundreds of cases of the coronavirus variant, first identified in South Africa, which scientists say could be more resistant to vaccines.
Mobile testing units were deployed to several regions, including parts of central and suburban London, while firefighter units and volunteers helped to deliver home testing kits and administer door-to-door testing.
Local authorities aimed to conduct 80,000 coronavirus tests.
By Tuesday morning, 105 cases of the mutation first seen in South Africa were identified in eight districts across Britain. Eleven of those cases did not have any direct link to international travel, suggesting the variant is being transmitted within the community.
Meanwhile, health authorities announced they are also investigating separate cases of the virus with what they described as worrying new genetic changes. The variants, identified in the cities of Bristol and Liverpool, have the same mutation as the South African variant, called E484K.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged people living in the affected areas to adhere to lockdown rules and stay home.
"Our mission must be to stop its spread altogether and break those chains of transmission. … It is imperative that people must stay at home and only leave home where it is absolutely essential," Hancock told members of parliament Tuesday.
Britain is still battling a separate coronavirus mutation, first identified in Kent in southern England in September, which has contributed to a deadly second wave of the pandemic. An estimated 107,000 people have died in Britain within 28 days of testing positive for the virus since the pandemic began.
Scientists say the variants appear to be more transmissible. Early indications from trials suggest they may also be more resistant to vaccines.
"There has been a couple of observations, one from Novavax and one from Johnson & Johnson, which suggest that their vaccine trials were less successful in South Africa than they were in the United Kingdom and the United States," Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Britain's University of Reading, told VOA. "(The mutation) renders antibodies less able to bind to the spike protein of the virus and stop the spike protein acting as a key to gain entrance to our cells."
That could affect people's immunity to the coronavirus, both for individuals who have had the infection and those who have been vaccinated.
"Even if we roll out a vaccine across the population, getting complete 100 percent coverage will be nigh on impossible," Clarke said. "And the virus will be put under a selective pressure to accommodate and to favor mutations like this, which render it less susceptible to vaccines, or the actions of vaccines."
Britain also announced Tuesday it had given a first vaccine dose to more than 10 million people, by far the highest in Europe. It is not yet clear, however, if the vaccines are as effective against the new variants and may need to be modified. Health Secretary Hancock said such work was under way.
"We're working with pharmaceutical companies and with the scientists to understand both whether such modifications are needed, where they are needed and how they can be brought to use on the front line as quickly as safely possible."
Scientists say the emergence of new variants around the world underlines the urgent need to roll out global vaccination programs and suppress transmission, as even fully vaccinated populations could be at risk as the virus continues to mutate.