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Explainer: What we do and don't know about the new coronavirus strain reported in the UK

The new variant has not been detected in Ireland to date.

Image: Shutterstock/MVelishchuk

IT WAS ANNOUNCED yesterday that a new strain of the virus that causes Covid-19 had been identified in England which may be associated with a faster spread of infections. 

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the existence of the new variant as he announced that London and some of its surrounding areas will move into the highest tier of restrictions. 

Dr Cillian de Gascun, member of NPHET, said today that based on the available sequence data, this new variant has not been detected in Ireland to date. He said this highlights the importance of surveillance.

However, it’s important to note that there have been a number of Covid-19 variants, and more research is needed on this recent one.  

For instance, it is not clear whether this virus is able to transmit more easily, leading to the recent surge in case numbers, or whether the frequency of new cases is simply down to the part of the country it is in, which already had an increased rate of infection.

With some Irish outlets raising concerns over what a possibly rapid-spreading new strain might mean for Ireland’s case count post-Christmas, let’s look at what we know so far.

Premature 

Public Health England (PHE) said that as of 13 December 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.

The UK government announced that London and parts of Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire will face Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday following “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases; while Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the ‘new variant’ of Covid-19 is growing faster than the existing variants already found.

But England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said that this faster spread may not be a result of cause and effect. 

“Is it getting more frequent because it’s in a part of the country where the rate of increase is going faster anyway… or is it that this virus itself is possible to transmit more easily? That isn’t really yet clear,” Whitty said yesterday. 

He said there is no evidence the strain is more dangerous or that symptoms are any worse or different.

Whitty also said the current Covid-19 test works for this variant and it would be “surprising” if the vaccines already in development were not effective against it.  

Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it’s “impossible” to say at this stage whether or not this a significant development. 

He said he was very surprised at Hancock’s “premature” announcement yesterday given there have been so many other mutations. 

SARS-CoV-2 has mutated some 4,000 times already but is doing so at a much slower rate in comparison with other viruses. 

“There is always a risk that it could change it in such a way that it might not be recognised by the antibodies that are in the vaccine but that does not seem to be the case,” McKee told Morning Ireland. 

“So it may well be that the mutation leads to the virus being much less infectious. But it’s probably less likely that it would lead to it being much more infectious. We just don’t know what the stage and I think it is very premature.”

Likewise, Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool and a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it is normal for viruses to mutate.

“People should not be losing sleep about this, they really need to leave the virology to the scientists because we’re at the very early stages of understanding what’s going on here,” Semple told BBC Breakfast. 

“What I can say is that coronavirus, like many other viruses, mutate all the time.

“And without the presence of community immunity – that’s because we don’t have herd immunity and won’t have for many, many months – the virus essentially is free to change and become more comfortable with the humans with which it is living.

“That’s what the virus is doing – it is learning how to become slightly better at living with us and becoming slightly more infectious. But that does not mean it’s harming us more or causing more severe illness in people.”

Here, NPHET was made aware of the new strain but it’s not yet clear whether we have any cases of it in Ireland.

Speaking at last night’s Department of Health press conference, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn that further epidemiological and virological investigation is needed and is ongoing by officials in the UK. 

The National Virus Reference Laboratory said it has reviewed its sequence data and there is no sign of the new variant to date.

Surveillance for this variant in sequence data will continue.

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We do know

  • There’s no evidence the symptoms are worse or even different;
  • Current Covid-19 tests can detect it;
  • The variant is unlikely to have an impact on the effectiveness of the new vaccines.

Semple said that the Covid-19 vaccines should still be reasonably effective because of their high-efficiency rates. 

“Even if we dropped a few percentage points, it’s still going to be good enough, and much better than many other vaccines on the market.

“And the next bit of good news is that the new vaccines are essentially like emails that we send to the immune system, and they’re very easy to tweak.

“So if we know that the lock has changed very slightly, we just have to edit that email, change a word or two and then the vaccine that will be ready in six to eight weeks’ time after that, will be competent and better targeted to the new strain.”

Professor Whitty said that tests are being carried out to confirm that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against this variant.

- With reporting from Michelle Hennessey and PA

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Adam Daly

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