A new variant of the coronavirus has been identified in the UK and could contribute to a rapid increase in infections in parts of the country.
Researchers were urgently investigating whether the new strain was more transmissible than previous variants of the coronavirus, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in the House of Commons on Monday, even as he sought to reassure MPs about the risks posed by the mutation.
“There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that this mutation is very unlikely to be unresponsive to a vaccine,” Mr. Hancock.
More than 1,000 cases with the new variant have been detected, mainly in the south of England, and the World Health Organization has been alerted.
“We don’t know how much of this is due to the new variant,” Hancock added. “But whatever the cause, we must take swift and decisive action. . . to combat this deadly disease during vaccine deployment. ”
Although the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 is still mutating, virologists said only one variant had already been detected, which changed the nature of the infection. This is the so-called 614G strain which has largely replaced the original 614D virus since the early months of the pandemic.
Allan Wilson, who heads the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, told the Financial Times he started hearing “rumblings” about the new strain on Sunday night. The main issues for scientists were whether the coronavirus tests currently in use would detect the new variety and whether a person infected with a previous strain of the virus would have the same level of protection against the new variant.
Coronavirus tests typically register different subtypes of the virus, suggesting they would detect the new version, but it may be several weeks before enough affected people have been tested to be certain of the response from current tests. , Wilson said.
As to whether the new variant would mean people with immunity – whether from vaccination or from a previous infection – would no longer be protected, Wilson added that it would take “a few months” to be sure. “[We] are probably cautiously optimistic, it won’t be a major issue for us. “
Professor Alan McNally of the University of Birmingham, an expert in microbial genomics, said “huge efforts” are underway to characterize the new strain and understand its origin. “It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain, as this is a normal course of the virus and we expect new variants to appear and disappear and emerge over time.”
“It is too early to be worried or not about this new variant, but I am impressed by the surveillance efforts in the UK which have allowed this to be detected so quickly,” added Professor McNally.
Another variant called 20A.EU1 was identified in October to have spread rapidly Spanish farm workers in much of Europe. Each variant has its own genetic signature and can be traced back to where it originated.
The 614G variant – the only mutation that has affected the behavior of the virus to date – is believed to have “increased the ability of viruses with this change to transmit” and is now “dominant in many countries,” said Andrew Davidson , virologist at the University of Bristol. “However, a number of studies suggest that [this] does not lead to more serious illness. “