Updated 17/12/2020: This article has been extensively updated to include the latest information about the new Covid-19 variant in the UK.
On Monday, the UK's Health Minister notified the World Health Organization that a new strain of Covid-19 has been found in the South East of England. Here's what we know so far.
"We've currently identified over a thousand cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas, and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement to the House of Commons.
"I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease."
"The latest clinical advice is that it's highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we've got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus."
Over the past few days, more information about the new variant of Covid-19 has been revealed. As of December 13, Public Health England (PHE) has identified at least 1,108 cases of the variant, mainly in the South and East of England.
For the most part, scientists are commenting that the news is not surprising and should not cause panic since mutations and variants are a totally normal feature of viruses. However, the emergence of a new variant is certainly something PHE and other labs need to keep a close eye on.
“Viral variation is “normal”. Whilst it is important to keep a genetic eye on the current coronavirus, variation is bound to occur as the numbers of infections and transmissions increase in what is a relatively early stage of this human-virus relationship," noted Professor Richard Tedder, a Senior Research Investigator in Medical Virology at Imperial College London.
As Hancock said on Monday, there is no evidence that suggests that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease. However, there is some indication it spread faster than other variants. This could be down to mere chance, but it’s possible the virus has picked up a mutation allowing it to transmit more efficiently. It remains unclear for now, so scientists are calling for caution interpreting reports until more hard evidence is available.
Scientists at the Gupta lab say they are currently working on a preprint paper, which will hopefully reveal some more solid insights into the variant. In the meantime, researchers have started to speculate on which mutations the new variant includes.
“The possible candidates based on some of our own observations is that this may refer to a double deletion in the coronavirus spike protein (positions 69/70) or alternatively a spike mutation in the receptor-binding domain N501Y3,” explained Dr Lucy van Dorp, senior research fellow in microbial genomics at the UCL Genetics Institute. “There is some experimental support for N501Y increasing receptor binding experimental settings and mouse models. There have also been some reports that the spike double deletion has a moderate impact on antibody recognition.”
The story is still developing and new details are being announced.
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