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New mutant coronavirus strain found in UK: what we know

Scientists in the United Kingdom have identified a new variant of covid-19 which has been associated with faster spread of the disease.

Scientists in the United Kingdom have identified a new variant of covid-19 which has been associated with faster spread of the disease.

UK health minister Matt Hancock confirmed earlier this week that a new variant of coronavirus, affecting the south-east of England, had been identified by scientists. What’s more, this new strain of covid-19 has been associated with a faster spread of the disease, leading to widespread coverage in the press under headlines about mutant covid, super covid and other fear-raising monikers.

Mutations are absolutely normal for coronaviruses

First things first, most viruses mutate pretty quickly, accumulating changes in their RNA as they replicate. Copying genetic code perfectly is hard (and it’s pretty important NOT to do it perfectly - if life did in fact do it perfectly there would be no evolution… no new coronaviruses, but also no dolphins, no birds, no humans), and when you multiply as many times as a virus does, you pick up a lot of errors, also known as mutations. Those mutations allow viruses to adapt quickly to changes in their host environment.

Most mutations though will likely be harmful to an individual virus’ chances of success (if by success we mean being able to spread as far and wide as possible), some may be neutral and others will help it spread.

By July 2020 over 12,000 mutant versions of covid-19 had been identified, according to the New Scientist, though there will be tens of thousands of versions that differ by a single mutation, given how quickly they mutate. Overall though any two covid-19 coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-2) will only differ by fewer than 30 mutations and be considered as belonging to the same strain.

What’s different about the variant in the south-east of England - VUI 202012/01

The variant that’s been identified in the south-east of England has 17 mutations that affect the shape of the virus, including the famous (or infamous) spike protein that gives the coronavirus family their name (and allows them to unlock cells). According to Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who monitors and sequences coronaviruses many of the mutations have been seen before, but it’s rare to see them all together. The new variant is called VUI - 202012/01, meaning it is the first variant being investigated in December.

By 13 December 1,108 cases involving the new variant had been identified, according to Public Health England. Bear in mind only a tiny number of positive cases have a sample sequenced to identify which variant is involved, so this is a high number, indicating this variant appears to be spreading very rapidly.

How quickly is the new coronavirus variant spreading?

Researchers don’t know. The number of times it’s being seen means they are pretty certain it is spreading faster than other variants, but to what extent is not clear, given the level of sequencing of positive cases. What’s also not clear is if it is spreading because of its mutations or for some other reason.

Further monitoring and lab work will be required to analyse whether the identified mutations in fact make it more infectious. So far no mutation of the many identified has been definitively proven to make any variant of the new coronavirus more infectious or more dangerous. The Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium said it would “take considerable time and effort to test the effect of many thousands of combinations of mutations”. Expect that to mean weeks though rather than months or years.

Could a mutation help the coronavirus evade vaccine protection?

Again, there’s no proof of this, but in theory yes, a mutation could help a virus evade the protective immune response created by a vaccine. In very general terms, if a vaccine creates an immune response to a particularly shape of spike protein, say, and the mutated virus has a different spike protein the vaccine may be less effective. The good news is that two of most effective vaccines produced so far, based on trial data, can be tweaked if a variant of the virus begins to evade the immune response. Equally, the vaccines produce antibodies against a number of areas on the spike protein, meaning a single change would be unlikely to effect efficacy.

The UK Health Secretary said that clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely this variant would be able to evade the immune response caused by a vaccine.

What can we do to avoid a mutant coronavirus?

No matter what mutations a coronavirus has the best way to avoid catching it is to follow the public health guidelines. So, wear a mask, stay more than two metres away from people, limit close contact with other people to as small a group as possible, avoid being indoors with other people and if you have to aim for those spaces to be as airy and well-ventilated as possible, wash your hands regularly… Even if a variant is slightly more infectious, these guidelines will still work against it.


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