New coronavirus variant: What’s new?
The quick spread of another variation of Covid has been accused for the presentation of exacting level four blending rules for a large number of individuals, harsher limitations on blending at Christmas in England, Scotland and Wales, and different nations setting the UK on a movement boycott.
So how has it gone from being non-existent to the most well-known type of the infection in pieces of England very quickly?
The public authority’s guides on new contaminations presently state they have “high” certainty that it is more ready to send than different variations.
All the work is at a beginning phase, contains immense vulnerabilities and an extensive rundown of unanswered inquiries.
Why is this variant causing concern?
Three things are coming together that mean it is attracting attention:
- It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
- It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
- Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells
All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily.
However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time – such as London, which had only tier two restrictions until recently.
But already the justification for tier four restrictions is in part to reduce the spread of the variant.
“Laboratory experiments are required, but do you want to wait weeks or months [to see the results and take action to limit the spread]? Probably not in these circumstances,” Prof Nick Loman, from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, told me.
How much faster is it spreading?
It was first detected in September. In November around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.
You can see how the variant has come to dominate the results of testing in some centres such as the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Laboratory.
Mathematicians have been running the numbers on the spread of various variations trying to figure the amount of an edge this one may have.
Yet, prodding separated what is because of individuals’ conduct and what is because of the infection is hard.
The figure referenced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was that the variation might be up to 70% more contagious. He said this might be expanding the R number – which demonstrates if a pestilence is developing or contracting – by 0.4.
That 70% number showed up in an introduction by Dr Erik Volz, from Imperial College London, on Friday.
During the discussion he stated: “It is actually too soon to tell… however from what we see so far it is becoming rapidly, it is becoming quicker than [a past variant] ever developed, yet it is imperative to watch out for this.”
There is no “nailed on” figure for the amount more irresistible the variation might be. Researchers, whose work isn’t yet open, have disclosed to me figures both a lot higher and much lower than 70%.
Yet, there remain inquiries concerning whether it is any more irresistible whatsoever.
“The measure of proof in the public space is woefully lacking to draw solid or firm sentiments on whether the infection has really expanded transmission,” said Prof Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.
How far has it spread?
It is thought the variant either emerged in a patient in the UK or has been imported from a country with a lower ability to monitor coronavirus mutations.
The variant can be found across the UK, except Northern Ireland, but it is heavily concentrated in London, the South East and eastern England. Cases elsewhere in the country do not seem to have taken off.
Data from Nextstrain, which has been monitoring the genetic codes of the viral samples around the world, suggest cases in Denmark and Australia have come from the UK. The Netherlands has also reported cases.
Has this happened before?
The virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, is not the same one you will find in most corners of the world.
The D614G mutation emerged in Europe in February and became the globally dominant form of the virus. Another, called A222V, spread across Europe and was linked to people’s summer holidays in Spain.
What do we know about the new mutations?
There have been changes to the spike protein – this is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway to our body’s cells.
One mutation called N501Y alters the most important part of the spike, known as the “receptor-binding domain”.
This is where the spike makes first contact with the surface of our body’s cells. Any changes that make it easier for the virus to get inside are likely to give it an edge.
“It looks and smells like an important adaptation,” said Prof Loman.
The other mutation – a H69/V70 deletion, in which a small part of the spike is removed – has emerged several times before, including famously in infected mink.
Work by Prof Ravi Gupta at the University of Cambridge has suggested this mutation increases infectivity two-fold in lab experiments.
Prof Gupta told me: “It is rapidly increasing, that’s what’s worried government, we are worried, most scientists are worried.”
Where has it come from?
The variant is unusually highly mutated.
The most likely explanation is the variant has emerged in a patient with a weakened immune system that was unable to beat the virus.
Instead their body became a breeding ground for the virus to mutate.
Does it make the infection more deadly?
There is no evidence to suggest that it does, although this will need to be monitored.
However, just increasing transmission would be enough to cause problems for hospitals.
If the new variant means more people are infected more quickly, that would in turn lead to more people needing hospital treatment.
Will the vaccines work against the new variant?
Almost certainly yes, or at least for now.
All three leading vaccines develop an immune response against the existing spike, which is why the question comes up.
Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.
“But if we let it add more mutations, then you start worrying,” said Prof Gupta.
“This virus is potentially on a pathway for vaccine escape, it has taken the first couple of steps towards that.”
Vaccine escape happens when the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people.
This may be the most concerning element of what is happening with the virus.
This variant is just the latest to show the virus is continuing to adapt as it infects more and more of us.
A presentation by Prof David Robertson, from the University of Glasgow on Friday, concluded: “The virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants.”
That would put us in a position similar to flu, where the vaccines need to be regularly updated. Fortunately the vaccines we have are very easy to tweak.