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.”
In reaction to the spread of this new strain of the virus, over 50 countries have banned any flights to or from Britain, including the Netherlands, India and Canada.
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 .
Professor Lawrence Young, who is also a molecular oncology expert, said the new variant does “two things” which make it more transmissible.
The Warwick Medical School academic said: “One is it’s getting into the body more efficiently and it looks like that’s because this change (mutation) which has occurred in the spike protein increases the strength of the interaction of the virus with cells in our bodies – it increases the stickiness, if you like.
“There’s also data reported last week from Nervtag (The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) and it looks like where you do see this virus infection individuals are making more of it as well – there are higher virus loads in the throat.”
Scientists have said the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children and Prof Young added that preliminary research suggests this is also due to its “stickiness”.
He said children have less of the receptors which picked up the older coronavirus variant, meaning they were less likely to catch it, but the new variant “might compensate for lower levels of that receptor or that door to the virus in children by being stickier”.
However there is currently no evidence that this variant – or any other studied to date – has any impact on disease severity.
Prof Neil Ferguson, speaking at a Q&A with experts from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there is strong evidence the new mutant strain is 50 per cent more transmissible than the previous virus.
While Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Sage scientific advisory group, told Sky News that the new variant of Sars-Cov-2 could become the dominant global strain as it has an “evolutionary advantage in transmitting more quickly”.
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. Professor Peter Horby, chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) has stated that the variant started from one person in Kent and could have been caused by ‘random errors’ when the virus copies.
Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief scientific advisor, said the variant had already “spread around the country”, warning that more regions could be put under Tier 4 restrictions in the coming weeks.
Prof Vallance told a Downing Street briefing on December 21: “The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.
“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced.”
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.
But, the chief executive of BioNTech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the UK variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure.
Ugur Sahin said on Dec 22 that “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” but because the proteins on the variant are 99 per cent the same as the prevailing strains, BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.
Mr Sahin said BioNTech is currently conducting further studies and hopes to have certainty within the coming weeks.
“The likelihood that our vaccine works … is relatively high.” But if needed, “we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks,” he added.
Moderna, which manufactures a different coronavirus vaccine, is also testing its jab against the faster-spreading version of the disease.
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.