Coronavirus UK: 'New variant' of Covid-19 identified says Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said a new variant of Covid-19 has been found in parts of UK.

Mr Hancock said the numbers of the new variant of coronavirus “are increasing rapidly”.

He told the Commons: “Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.

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“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.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street, London.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street, London.

“And numbers are increasing rapidly.”

Mr Hancock continued: “I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”

He added: “I need to tell the House that over the last week, we’ve seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

“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.”

Mr Hancock said the new strand of coronavirus is being analysed by Government scientists “right now”.

Responding to Jeremy Hunt, Conservative chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, Mr Hancock said: “The question he asked is being assessed in Porton Down right now.

“But as I said in my statement, the medical advice that we have is that it is highly unlikely that this new variant will impinge the vaccine and the impact of the vaccine.

“But we will know that in the coming days and weeks as the new strand is cultured at Porton Down and then, of course, the tests conducted upon it.”

Experts have warned it is too early to be worried about the new variant of the virus, or make any claims about the potential impacts of the virus mutation.

Alan McNally, professor in microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, said: “Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence.

“It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time.

“It’s too early to be worried or not by this new variant, but I am in awe of the surveillance efforts in the UK that allowed this to be picked up so fast.”

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect at all.

“Even though a new genetic variant of the virus has emerged and is spreading in many parts of the UK and across the world, this can happen purely by chance.

“Therefore, it is important that we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves, and until we have done that important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.”

Scientists will now be growing cultures of the strain in laboratories to see how it responds, to see if it produces the same antibody response to the existing strain, to see how the vaccine might impact it and to get a full picture of what it means.

However, it may take up to two weeks to thoroughly investigate the new variant of Covid-19.

While more is unknown about the new strain than is known, the places where it is being seen – the South of England – is where there are high numbers of cases, indicating it might be because the strain is spreading faster.

However, this needs to be looked at in more detail.

Experts will also be looking at samples all around the country to see whether the strain has spread, and how quickly.

This is the first time that authorities in England have investigated a coronavirus strain in this way.

A mutation is a change in the virus’s genome, the set of genetic instructions that have all the information the virus needs to function.

When the virus makes contact with a host and starts to replicate, this set of instructions is copied, but mistakes can happen during this process.

Like all infectious agents Covid-19 mutates as it circulates within the human population, but this is often without any real consequence on the virus.

These mutations can often be linked to the shape of the spike protein of the virus.

The Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) Consortium tracks new genetic variants as they spread and will investigate if these changes lead to detectable changes in the behaviour of the virus or the severity of Covid-19 infections.

Most mutations that arise and spread have no detectable effect on the biology of the virus.

But a few have the potential to change both the biological behaviour of the virus and persist if they confer an advantage to the virus.

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