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What you need to know about the new variant of coronavirus in the UK

UK health secretary Matt Hancock hosts a press conference on the covid-19 pandemic on 14 December (Photo by Tolga Akmen – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Tolga Akmen/WPA Pool/Getty Image

On 14 December, the UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock, told parliament that a new variant of the coronavirus associated with faster spread had been identified in south-east England. This has led to widespread concern, spurred by newspaper headlines about “super covid” and “mutant covid”. Here’s what you need to know about this new variant.

 

What do we know about this new variant so far?

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It was first sequenced in the UK in late September. It has 17 mutations that may affect the shape of the virus, including the outer spike protein, according to Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who is part of a team that has been monitoring and sequencing new variants. Many of these mutations have been found before in other viruses, but to have so many in a single virus is unusual.

 

So it has a whole bunch of mutations, not just one?

Yes. To put this in context, however, the coronavirus is constantly mutating and there are lots of variants with one or more mutations. In fact, by July, there were already . The number will be higher now, though many mutations are rare and the viruses carrying them often die out.

 

Hang on, there are more than 12,000 variants of the coronavirus?

There are tens of thousands that differ from each other by at least one mutation in the genome. But any two SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses from anywhere in the world will usually differ by fewer than 30 mutations, and are regarded as all belonging to the same strain. Researchers instead talk about different lineages.

 

So what’s unusual about this one?

How fast it is spreading really caught the attention of researchers monitoring viral evolution. By 13 December, had been identified, mostly in the south and east of England, which is a lot because only a small proportion of viral samples get sequenced. “It’s the growth rate we are worrying about,” says Loman. “We are seeing very rapid growth.”

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Are the mutations in this variant helping it spread?

We don’t know that yet. The variant is spreading faster than other strains in the same regions, but it isn’t yet clear why. By pure chance, some coronavirus lineages do spread more than others. For now, there is no clear evidence that this is due to these particular mutations. “At the moment, we don’t know if this is making a blind bit of difference,” says Lucy van Dorp at University College London.

 

How worried should we be?

It will take a combination of further monitoring and lab studies looking at the effect of the particular mutations present in this variant to find out if it really is more infectious. But so far, no mutation has definitively been shown to make any SARS-CoV-2 lineage more transmissible or more dangerous.

 

What if this variant is better at spreading?

How we behave still matters far more than any changes in the virus, says van Dorp. In other words, measures such as wearing masks and social distancing will work against this new variant even if it is slightly more likely to infect people exposed to it.

 

Is it causing more severe illness in those who develop covid-19?

Again, we don’t know. To find out, we would have to identify lots of people who have become ill after being infected with this specific variant and monitor them for at least a month. But there is no reason to think so. Mutations that make viruses more infectious don’t necessarily make them more dangerous.

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Could this new variant evade the protection conferred by vaccines?

There is no evidence of this, although it cannot yet be ruled out. However, the good news is that two of the vaccines that have proved most effective in trials so far to help it evade the immune response to the vaccine.

 

So we don’t know that much at all?

No. Genomics researchers are doing their job by highlighting this variant so researchers can find out more. What many are asking is whether it was appropriate for a health minister to publicly announce these preliminary findings in a way that led to widespread concern.

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