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Q&A: How concerned should we be about the new Covid-19 strain?

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Shoppers wearing face masks due to COVID-19 restriction pictured in Belfast City Centre after the easing of lockdown restrictions. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Shoppers wearing face masks due to COVID-19 restriction pictured in Belfast City Centre after the easing of lockdown restrictions. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Shoppers wearing face masks due to Covid-19 restriction pictured in Belfast City Centre. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Shoppers wearing face masks due to Covid-19 restriction pictured in Belfast City Centre. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

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Shoppers wearing face masks due to COVID-19 restriction pictured in Belfast City Centre after the easing of lockdown restrictions. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Is this something unusual?

There have been many mutations in the virus since it emerged in 2019.

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Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty

This is to be expected - SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and these viruses mutate and change. Public Health England (PHE) said that, as of December 13, 1,108 cases with this new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England. It has been named VUI-202012/01, the first variant under investigation in December.

What did England's Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, say about it?

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Prof Whitty said that the UK has informed the World Health Organisation that the new variant coronavirus can spread more rapidly.

In a statement on Saturday, he said that following the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.

Is this something to be worried about?

If the virus spreads faster it will be harder to control. However, there have already been various strains of Covid-19 with no real consequence.

The Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium said it is difficult to predict whether any given mutation is important when it first emerges, and that it would take "considerable time and effort to test the effect of many thousands of combinations of mutations".

It said the biggest concern is any changes that lead to an increase in reinfections or vaccine failure, and that most attention is on mutations in the gene that encodes the spike protein.

There are currently about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene. Prof Whitty has said that there is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments.

How fast is it spreading?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that early analysis showed the new strain could increase the reproductive rate by 0.4 or more and that it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.

Sir Patrick said the variant, which was thought to have emerged in mid-September in London or Kent, had a "significant substantial increase in transmissibility".

He added that by December over 60% of infections in the capital had been the new variant, saying: "It moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant."

Is it the first novel strain detected in the UK?

A number of variants have been detected using sequencing studies in the UK.

A specific variant (the D614G variant) has previously been detected in western Europe and North America, which is believed to spread more easily but not cause greater illness.

But it is thought this is the first strain that will be investigated in such detail by PHE.

Are new variants always a bad thing?

Not necessarily. They could even be less virulent.

However, if they spread more easily but cause the same disease severity, more people will end up becoming ill in a shorter period of time.

Should we expect the virus to become more harmful?

Not really. Only changes that make viruses better for transmission are likely to be stable and result in new circulating strains. The pressure on the virus to evolve is increased by the fact that so many millions of people have now been infected.

Most of the mutations will not be significant or give cause for concern, but some may give the virus an evolutionary advantage which may lead to higher transmission or mean it is more harmful.

Will vaccines still work?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the latest clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine. The vaccine produces antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, and it is unlikely a single change would make the vaccine less effective.

However, this could happen over time as more mutations occur, as is the case every year with flu.


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