A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in England and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, revealed on December 14 that its numbers “are increasing rapidly”.
He told the Commons: “Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.
“We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the South of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.”
With news that the UK’s battle against coronavirus could be hampered by the appearance of this new strain of the disease, The Telegraph answers your questions.
What is the mutation and how dangerous is it?
The variant – called ‘VUI – 202012/01’ – carries a set of mutations including an N501Y mutation to part of the genetic sequence which forms the spike protein – little grippy rods which attach to human cells. Any change in shape of the spike protein could make it more difficult for the immune system to spot. The virus uses the spike protein to bind to the human ACE2 receptor.
Government scientists are studying it at laboratories in Porton Down but there is no evidence to suggest it is more likely to lead to serious illness. However if it can bind more easily to human cells, it may spread quicker and people could end up with a higher viral load .
However there is currently no evidence that this variant – or any other studied to date – has any impact on disease severity.
What are the symptoms of the new strain of coronavirus?
At the moment, it seems the symptoms are the same as the more familiar strain. The variant was spotted through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which are usually only given to people with traditional symptoms of the virus, so we can assume the symptoms are identical.
How was it picked up?
Government scientists have been carrying out random genetic analysis of around 10 per cent of PCR tests and spotted the new mutations. The Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) Consortium tracks new genetic variants as they spread and investigates if these changes lead to detectable changes in the behaviour of the virus or the severity of Covid-19 infections.
How many cases have been found and where are they?
More than 1,000 cases found so far in 60 local authorities, predominantly in the south of England.
Is this the first mutation found?
No. Coronaviruses mutate frequently and many thousands of mutations have already arisen in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus emerged in 2019.
As early as March, scientists had already discovered the virus has evolved into two major lineages (dubbed ‘L’ and ‘S’ types).
The older ‘S-type’ appeared to be milder and less infectious, while the ‘L-type’ which emerged later, spreads quickly and by the Spring accounted for around 70 per cent of cases.
Another variant (D614G) has also been detected in Western Europe, and North America which, although it spreads more easily, does not cause greater illness.
A worrying mutation, dubbed ‘Cluster 5’ was found in mink farms in Denmark leading to a cull of 17 million animals.
Could it hamper a vaccine?
Possibly. Most coronavirus vaccines are targeting the Spike Protein which the virus uses to latch on to human cells. The vaccines prime the body to be able to spot the spike protein so the immune system can spot the virus.
However, if the spike protein mutates the body will no longer be able to recognise the virus and vaccines may prove ineffective.
Professor Calum Semple of Liverpool University said it is “the million-dollar question” whether vaccines will be effective against the new variant of coronavirus but he thinks they will.
The member of Sage told the BBC’s Breakfast: “Some of the mutations are occurring in the key that the virus uses to unlock the cells. And we see this with flu each year and that’s why the flu vaccine has to change year on year.”
He added: “I would expect the vaccine still to be reasonably effective because it’s currently 95 per cent effective. Even if we dropped a few percentage points, it’s still going to be good enough, and much better than many other vaccines on the market.
“And the next bit of good news is that the new vaccines are essentially like emails that we send to the immune system, and they’re very easy to tweak.
“So if we know that the lock has changed very slightly, we just have to edit that email, change a word or two and then the vaccine that will be ready in six to eight weeks’ time after that, will be competent and better targeted to the new strain.
“So this is this is not a disaster. This isn’t a breakdown in all our plans. This is just what we expect with a new virus, and it’s what the scientists and the doctors have come to understand, and we will adapt.”
However there is a possibility that the roll-out of vaccination will lead to selection for mutations that allow the virus to escape from the effect of the vaccine.
Are the experts worried?
Most scientists are downplaying this development as most mutations found so far have not proved more deadly. Some variants actually prove to be less aggressive and many die out.
In November, scientists at UCL published research showing that there has not been a mutation so far that has increased transmissibility.
Prof Tom Solomon, the Director of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections, at the University of Liverpool, said: “SARS-CoV-2, the virus which cause Covid-19 is evolving and mutating all the time, as do all similar viruses. Such changes are completely to be expected.
“In the UK we are doing very detailed genetic assessment of many of the virus strains detected. From what Matt Hancock has announced it sounds as though a particular variant is being detected especially across the South of England.
“Just because there has been a small change in the virus’ genetic make-up this does not mean it is any more virulent, nor that vaccines won’t be effective. Our experience from previous similar viruses suggests that the vaccines will be effective despite small genetic changes.”
Dr Zania Stamataki, Viral Immunologist, of the University of Birmingham, added: “The emergence of different coronavirus strains a year after SARS-CoV-2 first jumped to humans is neither cause for panic nor unexpected. Mutations will accumulate and lead to new virus variants, pushed by our own immune system to change or perish.
“This virus doesn’t mutate as fast as influenza and, although we need to keep it under surveillance, it will not be a major undertaking to update the new vaccines when necessary in the future. This year has seen significant advances take place, to build the infrastructure for us to keep up with this coronavirus.”
However Prof Nick Loman of Uni of Birmingham says this new variant is “concerning”, as there’s “a strong association” with areas of high growth & there appear to be changes in the spike protein which feel “quite likely” to influence the virus’ behaviour.