New Covid-19 variant detected in UK, scientists say there’s no reason to panic and call for more research
A new variant of Covid-19 has been identified in the southeast of England, where it may be connected to a faster transmission, according to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock. More than 1,000 cases of this variant have been identified in the last few days in England, primarily in the south of the country.
“Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the southeast of England,” Hancock told the House of Commons on December 14.
He explained, “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. And the numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been notified and the variant is being studied by Public Health England (PHE) at its Porton Down facility, informed Hancock. However, the new variant is unlikely to cause more serious disease than other variants.
“I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that the variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and 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,” he emphasized.
Hancock told the House that over the last week, there has been very sharp, exponential rises in coronavirus infections across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire. “We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out,” he stated.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, also said it was unclear whether the new variant had contributed to the rise in cases. Speaking later at a briefing, Whitty stressed that there was no evidence that the new variant was more dangerous than the previous one.
What experts are saying
Dr Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said the agency was aware of the variant. “This kind of evolution and mutations are quite common."
"The question, as we’ve had most recently with the mink variants in Denmark and previous variations, is: does this make the virus more serious? Does it allow the virus to transmit more easily? Does it in any way interfere with diagnostics? Would it in any way interfere with vaccine effectiveness? None of these questions are addressed yet. We have no information to suggest that any of that is the case,” he noted.
The Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium issued a statement saying that efforts are underway to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission. “There is currently no evidence that this variant (or any other studied to date) has any impact on disease severity, or that it will render vaccines less effective, although both questions require further studies performed at pace. We will provide further updates as our investigations proceed,” it informed.
Dr Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, US, tweeted that this will need a rigorous assessment before it can be confirmed.
This is going to require rigorous assessment before it can be confirmed. New variant sure, functionally significant unlikely. Suspect it will be refuted or seriously questioned. https://t.co/jROX7lB0L9— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) December 14, 2020
Multiple experts told the Science Media Centre that the new variant’s existence was unsurprising and unlikely to derail efforts to fight the pandemic. They explained that coronaviruses are known to mutate.
Professor Tom Solomon, the director of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections, at the University of Liverpool, said that the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) is evolving and mutating all the time, as do all similar viruses.
“Such changes are completely to be expected. Just because there has been a small change in the virus’ genetic make-up 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,” he added.
Dr Lucy van Dorp, senior research fellow in microbial genomics at the UCL Genetics Institute, emphasized that it is “frustrating to have claims like this made without the associated evidence presented for scientific assessment and the variant remains to be officially announced.”
She noted: “At the same time it is important to remember that all SARS-CoV-2 in circulation are extremely genetically similar to one another and our prior should be that most mutations have no significant impact on the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2. However, genomic monitoring is essential to allow us to stay one step ahead.”
According to Dr Zania Stamataki, a viral immunologist at the University of Birmingham, the emergence of different coronavirus strains 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. This year has seen significant advances take place, to build the infrastructure for us to keep up with this coronavirus,” explained Stamataki.
Experts lauded research and surveillance efforts that enabled the identification of the variant but added that more evidence is needed to understand the significance of the mutation. Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), called it “truly a wonderful worldwide effort that is ensuring that changes in the virus are being monitored.”
“As the vaccines are introduced, this will become a more important process to ensure that any vaccine escape mutants that could theoretically develop are quickly identified and isolated,” he stated.
Dr Stephen Griffin, chair of the virus division at the Microbiology Society and associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, suggested that while coronaviruses tend to mutate more slowly than some other viruses, this does not mean that they will not change over time.
“It is encouraging that our surveillance systems have picked this variant up, but it is important that we understand how this change in the virus spike protein might affect the behavior of the virus,” he advised.
Dr Andrew Davidson, reader in virology at the University of Bristol, recommended that it is critical to carry out “active surveillance” to identify changes in SARS-CoV-2, as they occur, and study the properties of any new viruses to determine if they pose a greater threat to human health.