Scientists are studying it at laboratories in Porton Down, and it may spread quicker and infect more people.
A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in England and Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed on Dec 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, the government implemented Tier 4 on Dec 20, the highest level of restrictions, and over 50 countries have banned any flights to or from Britain, including the Netherlands, India and Canada.
The latest Government figures showed that a further 445 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Jan 2, bringing the total number of UK fatalities to 74,570.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have now been 90,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
As of 9am on Jan 2, there had been a further 57,725 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK – the highest daily total so far – bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 2,599,789.
After the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Dec 30, the Government now faces a race to vaccinate millions in order to stop the spread of the new variant.
The vaccine will be rolled out from Jan 4 across the country. The jab will be administered at six hospitals for the first few days for surveillance purposes before the bulk of supplies are sent to hundreds of GP-led services to be rolled out.
Mass vaccination centres at sports stadiums and conference venues are primed to launch in the second week of January.
The Government is aiming for two million people to receive their first dose of either the Oxford vaccine or the Pfizer jab within a fortnight as part of a major ramping up of the inoculation programme.
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?
Matt Hancock said the highly transmissible coronavirus variant makes up the majority of new cases in the UK.
A random testing sample of people in the South East found that the new, more transmissible variant accounted for 71 per cent of new cases, rising to 72 per cent in London.
Data from the Office for National Statistics also found the new strain was responsible for 67 per cent of the cases in the East of England and 53 per cent across the whole of England.
The figures indicate that the new variant has come to dominate the latest cases, detected in the week ending Dec 18, as it sweeps like wildfire through communities despite the continuing tiered restriction system.
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.
The variant likely originated in this patient, as they may have a weakened immune system which was struggling to beat the virus. Therefore, instead of destroying the virus, they became a breeding ground for the virus to mutate.
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 Dec 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.”
Reports have also found that non-British nations are currently spreading this UK variant of coronavirus across the world.
This comes after French health officials confirmed the variant was found in a patient, who displayed no symptoms and has now entered self-isolation, on the morning of Dec 26.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland shared its first case on Dec 23, and German officials revealed the variant had reached their nation on Christmas Day.
The United States has announced that British passengers must provide a negative coronavirus test to enter America. This follows this news that Japan confirmed that the first cases of the variant originated in Kent. These restrictions will came into force on Dec 28, when visitors will require a negative test within 72 hours of flying.
However, travellers from the UK were already banned from entering the United States, in an attempt to keep the new variant under control.
South Korea detected the virus variant, in three individuals from a London-based family who arrived in the country last week. It is now thought that it has spread to at least 30 countries.
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.
Furthermore, the current figures follow concerns from scientific advisors who have warned that one million Covid-19 vaccinations a week will not be enough to bring the pandemic under control.
The director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar, who advises Sage has said:
“We’re not going to be free of this pandemic by February; this is now a human endemic infection.
If we do manage to hit the target of a million [vaccinated] a week, frankly I don’t think that’s enough to speed that up if we wanted to get the country covered.”
“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 rollout of the vaccine will lead to selection for mutations that allow the virus to escape from the effect of the vaccine.
“There is no value in just vaccinating one country or one population,” Sir Jeremy Farrar added.
Responding to the news on Dec 30, that the UK has approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, he reiterated that “vaccines must be available to the whole world at the same time as promised by many politicians”.
“If we continue vaccinating only people in rich countries, while allowing the virus to continue to spread unchecked in other parts of the world, then new variants will emerge in these parts of the world against which our vaccines and treatments may no longer work,” he said. “And these new variants will inevitably spread around the world. Then we are all be back to square one.
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.
Prof Van Tam stated on Dec 30 that it would take up to two weeks for scientists to confirm the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines were effective against the new strains of Covid-19
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. 2020 saw 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.
By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor @ Telegraph