There are fears a new variant of coronavirus may be speeding up the spread of Covid-19, particularly in south-east England.
Public Health England (PHE) said, as of 13 December, 1,108 cases with this new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England.
Is this something to be worried about?
It is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation. But if the virus spreads faster it will be harder to control. That said, there have already been various strains of Covid-19 of no real consequence. It could potentially be serious, but not enough is known, and the surveillance and research will continue.
Why is coronavirus rising in parts of southern England?
One factor could be the new strain, which has shown up in England’s genomic surveillance in the past two months. The strain contains a number of mutations and has been detected in parts of the south where cases of the virus are rising fastest, according to the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
He said initial analysis suggested the new strain was growing faster than existing variants. Though predominantly in the south, more than 1,000 cases have been spotted in nearly 60 local authorities “and the numbers are growing rapidly”, he said.
Is the new strain more dangerous?
There is no suggestion that the virus is any more dangerous than other Sars-CoV-2 coronaviruses. A more complete picture of whether it is linked to differences in symptoms or the duration or severity of disease will emerge as scientists collect additional data. Researchers on the Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) consortium detected the variant and will be monitoring its movement around the country. They analyse the genetic code of about 10% of coronavirus cases and share the sequences immediately.
Why might it spread faster?
Viruses acquire mutations all the time. Most have little or no effect, and some will hinder the virus, leading those mutations to die out. But mutations are possible that make the virus transmit faster.
The new variant has multiple mutations in the coronavirus spike protein, the most troubling of which appears to be what scientists call a deletion – in this case, the loss of two amino acids from the spike protein – which may make it spread more easily. The same deletion has been spotted in coronaviruses in several countries since the spring, but at low levels. It began to take off in southern England in August and September.
The same deletion was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient with a weakened immune system. The patient was treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient. The virus acquired the mutation during that treatment and may have become more resistant to the antibodies. The patient ultimately died of the infection.
“We think there’s a mechanism for the virus to start escaping,” said Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Cambridge. “We need to crack down on it. We don’t know what it’s going to do long term but we can’t take a chance on it. It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.”