What do we know about the new COVID-19 variant?

The government has confirmed that a new variant of the COVID-19 virus is behind the surge in cases in the south-east of England. GPonline looks at what we know so far.

(Photo: Radoslav Zilinsky/Getty Images)
(Photo: Radoslav Zilinsky/Getty Images)

When was the new variant discovered?

On Monday 14 December health secretary Matt Hancock told parliament that 1,000 cases of the new COVID-19 variant had been found in the previous month, predominantly in south-east England, but spread across 60 different local authorities.

At the time he said that scientists were unsure if the ‘exponential rise’ in coronavirus cases across some parts of the country recently was down to the new variant, but suggested this might be the case.

A preliminary analysis of the strain of the virus published on 18 December reveals that the earliest samples of this variant were found in Kent on 20 September and London on 21 September.

The scientists have suggested that the virus could have emerged in an immunodeficient or immunosuppressed patient who was infected with COVID-19. However, this is still a hypothesis and the exact situation that led to the mutation is currently unknown.

What do we know about it?

At a Downing Street briefing on Monday 14 December England's CMO Professor Chris Whitty explained that testing in the UK has already identified a number of different variants of the COVID-19 virus but that this particular one had 'quite a few more mutations' than some of the others that have been seen.

During a Downing Street brieing on Saturday 18 December, chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said that the new variant contained 23 different changes with many of these in 'areas of the virus that are known to be associated with how the virus binds to cells and enter cells'.

He said that in London the new variant now accounted for 60% of all cases, up from around 28% in the middle of November. He added: 'So what this tells us is that this new variant not only moves fast. It is increased in terms of its ability to transmit, but it is becoming the dominant variant, it is beating all the others.'

During the same briefing Professor Whitty said that the virus was now doubling every seven days in some parts of the country and this was the key reason behind the introduction of the new tier 4 levels to large parts of the south east of England. Prime minister Boris Johnson said that the new variant may be increasing the R number by 0.4.

Meanwhile, on Sunday 20 December Welsh health secretary Vaughan Gething also revealed that the new variant was 'seeded' in every part of Wales.

At present there is no sign that the new variant causes more severe disease. Sir Patrick also said that 'nothing had been seen' to suggest that it altered the immune response - meaning the vaccines should still be effective.

At the start of last week Professor Whitty said that most of the tests would work 'completely normally' and be able to identify the virus, although some tests might be 'slightly less effective'.

Is the variant elsewhere?

The health secretary told parliament on 14 December that 'similar variants' had been found in other European countries in recent months and the UK had shared its findings with the World Health Organization.

Professor Whitty explained that scientists in this and other countries were still working to understand whether the variants are the same mutation or slightly different versions of the virus.

There are reports of some cases of the variant in Denmark, Australia and South Africa. However research by Nextstrain, which has been monitoring development of the virus around the globe, has suggested that the virus in South Africa, while having similar properties to the UK variant, has developed independently.

Will the vaccines work against this strain of the virus?

Professor Whitty seems confident that they will, although scientists are currently analysing the virus to properly put this to the test.

Of possible concern is that this new variant has some mutations on the coronavirus spike protein. Almost all of the vaccines in development target the spike protein, however on Monday 14 December the CMO said this was no reason to think that the mutation would necessarily impact on their effectiveness.

He said that because the vaccine had only very recently been deployed and only a relatively small proportion of the population had immunity due to prior infection 'it would be surprising' if the virus had mutated in a way to bypass a vaccine or antibodies. However he did add that it was 'not impossible' that this could be an issue.

'We should have answers relatively soon as to whether there's any evidence that what's called neutralising antibodies, the antibodies that stop a virus getting into the cells, are affected by this mutation,' Professor Whitty added.

'If there is then people need to go back and think about vaccine formulation, but I don't think there's any reason at this point to think that's particularly likely but let's wait and see what the science shows us.'

This article was first published on 16 December and updated on 21 December.

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