1,000 Cases of New Variant of COVID in UK; What We Know So Far 

Would a regular COVID vaccine work? Should we be worried? More information is needed, say experts.

Updated
COVID-19
3 min read
A new variant of coronavirus has been found which is growing faster in some parts of England.
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A new variant of coronavirus has been found which is growing faster in some parts of England, and so far, there have been over 1,000 cases identified with this variant.

Would a regular COVID vaccine work? Should we be worried? And how exactly do mutations happen?

FIT breaks it down.

What Happened?

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at least 60 different local authorities had recorded COVID infections caused by the new variant, the BBC reported on Monday, 14 December.

He said the World Health Organization (WHO) had been notified and scientists in the UK were doing detailed studies, reported IANS.

This news comes after Hancock told MPs at the House of Commons that over the last week, there had been sharp, exponential rises in coronavirus infections across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

“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.”
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock

England's Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty said that current coronavirus swab tests would detect the new variant that has been found predominantly in Kent and neighbouring areas in recent weeks.

Would a Vaccine Still Work?

The news of the new variant is still emerging, but so far, Hancock believes the regular COVID vaccines would still be useful.

He said there was “nothing to suggest” and added that it could either worsen the disease or that vaccines would no longer work.

Still, he added, "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."

The changes or mutations involve the spike protein of the virus – the part that helps it infect cells, and the target COVID vaccines are designed around.

It is too soon to know exactly what this will do to the behaviour of the virus, and more information and detailed studies are needed.

Should We Be Worried?

Experts seem divided.

Prof Alan McNally, an expert at the University of Birmingham, told the BBC, "Let's not be hysterical. It doesn't mean it's more transmissible or more infectious or dangerous. It is something to keep an eye on. Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence. It is important to keep a calm and a rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time."

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said it was potentially serious. "The surveillance and research must continue, and we must take the necessary steps to stay ahead of the virus."

So, at the moment, there are scary headlines everywhere, but still no scientific detail to know how significant this is.

How Does a Virus Mutate?

There is a simple rule for understanding all "new strain" or "new variants": Ask whether the behaviour of the virus has changed.

It’s important to remember that viruses mutate all the time. It’s just a normal part of their behaviour. Right now, we’ve been given the scare but no answer which is worrisome given the scale of COVID but more information is needed before we panic.

Matt Hancock said the new variant of coronavirus "may be associated" with the faster spread in the south-east of England.

This is not the same as saying it "is causing" the rise and Hancock did not say this virus has evolved to spread from person-to-person more readily.

New strains can become more common for reasons that have nothing to do with the virus. For example, one explanation for the emergence of the “Spanish strain” over the summer was tourism.

(The article was first published in FIT and has been republished with permission.)

(With inputs from IANS)

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