UK government declares identification of a “new variant” of coronavirus

The UK government has released a statement that a “new variant” of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that could be causing a faster spread of the virus has been identified. This information was released yesterday by Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary.

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A “New Variant”

Many variants of the virus have been reported globally, but what makes this particular one important is that the virus is currently spreading fast in the South East of England, and the Health Secretary states that they believe this is due to the new variant. It should be noted that this is an associated link and has not been confirmed as causation.

The new variant has been reported in 60 local authority areas, mostly in Kent, and it is thought to be alike other variants found in other countries in recent months.

Parts of Southern England will be entering stricter lockdown measures as of Wednesday, a measure which has been brought forward due to the dramatic increase in case numbers.

Assessing the Variant

The Health Secretary has said that a UK military research base, Porton Down, is examining the variant, that there is nothing to indicate that it will cause more severe symptoms and that it is “highly unlikely” that the vaccine will not work on it. Whilst the variant has been associated with a dramatic rise in cases in a certain area, there is also not yet anything to say that the virus is spreading from person to person more quickly.

The spike protein of the virus which helps it to infect other cells is reportedly the part that has changed in this new variant. This is the part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that the vaccines are designed around, and so it is important to monitor this variant.

The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus - by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments - but many changes have no effect at all."

Professor Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, to the BBC

The next step is to characterize the new variant and understand its origins. Whilst it has been made clear that people should not panic – evolution is a natural part of viruses and has been happening all along with the SARS-CoV-2 virus – it is still important to take the variant seriously.

With any variant that arises, researchers need to work out whether the virus’ behavior has changed, as this is where a problem could lie and where things like vaccines and transmission can be affected.

It is important that we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves, and until we have done that important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation."

Professor Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, to the BBC

What Mutations Have There Been So Far?

So far, seven major strains of COVID-19 have been confirmed and it is thought that mutations occur every week or so within these – mostly with no effect. It is important to remember that mutations happen in viruses all the time and can even have weakening effects.

Some of the early strains (including the L strain, the original one discovered in Wuhan, China) have almost disappeared, and variations of the G strain which affected a lot of Europe and North America are now dominant.

In recent months, a strain was detected in mink farms and resulted in a mass cull of mink in Denmark. The panic here was that the mutation was thought to affect the spike protein and authorities feared this would affect the effectiveness of the vaccine which targets this protein.

Will New Variants Affect Vaccine Effectiveness?

As of yet, there have been no variants confirmed to affect the effectiveness of the vaccines. More information will come out about this new UK variant soon, but it is not expected to affect the vaccines.

What remains constant is that the best method for controlling the virus is to reduce the spread. This will reduce its mutations and therefore reduce the chances of a mutation that defies the odds and affects vaccine effectiveness.

Source:
Sophia Coveney

Written by

Sophia Coveney

Sophia is a research conservationist and freelance editor based in the UK. She graduated from Durham University, UK, in 2019 with a B.Sc. in Biology and Psychology.

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