New Covid strain UK: what are the symptoms of the new coronavirus variant - and will the vaccine still work?

Scientists are still studying the new strain

A new strain of Covid-19 was indentified in the UK just before Christmas.

It is thought that the new variant is behind the exponential rise in cases throughout the country – and it is one of the reasons a fresh lockdown was imposed in both Scotland and England at the beginning of January.

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And there are fears that the mutated variant of the virus might be able to attack the immune system after vaccination.

A new strain of Covid-19 has been identified in the UK (Shutterstock)
A new strain of Covid-19 has been identified in the UK (Shutterstock)

It comes as the UK recently passed another grim milestone, recording more than 80,000 Covid-19 related deaths, according to official figures.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new strain - and whether you should be worried about it.

Where did the variant come from?

Matt Hancock told MPs on Monday 14 December that a new variant of Covid-19 had been identified, and that it was spreading in some areas of the country.

The new strain, called VUI – 202012/01, was first detected in September, and in November around a quarter of coronavirus cases in London were the variant.

It quickly spread across the south east of England, leading to more than 50 countries stopping flights to or from Britain to prevent the spread.

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It was first detected back in October, by the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (Cog-UK).

The new strain was found in two samples, collected from Kent in London, on September 20 and 21.

Virologists suspect that the multiple mutations happened in a patient with a severely suppressed immune system, who may have had the virus for weeks and then infected someone else.

Is it more transmissible?

The new sprain spread quickly in London and south-east England, becoming the dominant variant.

It was responsible for 62 percent of infections in London during the week ending 9 December, and it’s now present in Scotland, Wales and throughout England.

As it has spread quickly, scientists believe it could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than other variants.

That was also the figure Boris Johnson referred to when speaking about the new strain - and he said that could increase the R number - the infection rate - by at least 0.4.

However Professor Neil Ferguson, speaking at a Q&A with members of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there is strong evidence that the new strain is 50 per cent more transmissible than the original variant.

Can it infect children more easily?

The new variant could infect children more easily, said Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (NervTag).

He said there is a “hint” that the virus has a “higher propensity” to infect children, according to the latest data.

Prof Ferguson explained: “What we've seen over the course of a five or six-week period is consistently the proportion of pillar two cases for the variant in under-15s was statistically significantly higher than the non-variant virus."

However, he warned that more data would be needed before a conclusion could be made.

Can a test detect the new strain?

Standard Covid-19 swab tests - which are now widely used at testing centres across the UK - will be able to detect the new virus variant, England's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said.

However, it is too soon to know exactly what the new strain will do to the behaviour of the virus.

Can it cause more serious symptoms?

There is currently no evidence to suggest that the new strain of coronavirus can cause more serious or different symptoms to other variants.

At the moment, it seems the symptoms of the new strain are the same, as it was spotted through the standard PCR test, which is usually given to people who have traditional virus symptoms.

However, if the new variant means more people are infected more rapidly, that would subsequently lead to more people being hospitalised.

As scientists undertake studies of and collect additional information about the new strain, they will be able to determine whether it is linked to any differences in symptoms.

Will it respond to a vaccine?

There are fears that the vaccines will not work against the new strain and scientists are currently studying whether the current Pfizer and Oxford vaccines will work against the new strain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said clinical advice had so far suggested that it would be “highly unlikely” the new strain would not respond to a vaccine.

And BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin told Bild TV he was confident that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would be effective against the new strain – but that his company would still be looking into the variant over the coming days.

Moderna, which manufactures the third coronavirus vaccine due in the UK in March, is also testing its jab against the new version of the virus.

The vaccines invented by Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford all train the immune system to attack the spike protein of the virus - which is where the mutation has been found.

Yet, the human body learns to fight off multiple parts of the spike, which is why health experts have said the vaccine will still work against the new strain.

When the mass vaccination programme really kicks off and lots of people are given the jab, the virus will have to mutate again in order to try and infect those people who have been immunised.

A regularly-evolving virus could lead to multiple updates of the vaccine - just like what happens with the flu jab.

What is a mutation?

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

Mutations happen when the virus makes contact with a host and starts to replicate.

The set of instructions is then copied, but mistakes can often happen in the process.

Where the errors occur within the genome will determine whether they have a positive or negative impact on the virus’s ability to survive or replicate.

SARS-CoV-2 is a RNA virus, which is more prone to mutations, unlike DNA viruses, like smallpox.

As it has passed from person to person over the past few months, Covid-19 has been, and continues to be, mutating.

Should we be worried about the new strain?

Matt Hancock said there was “nothing to suggest” that the new strain would be more likely to cause serious illness, although he urged the public to be “vigilant” and follow the rules and restrictions in place to ensure the spread does not increase.

The good news is that mutations are a part of the natural process of an RNA virus and are very common.

Since the coronavirus started to spread across the world, it is thought that it has been mutating twice a month to find the most effective way to infect humans.

Sometimes, a virus mutates in a way that makes it worse at infecting people - and the new strain can then die out.

However, the new strain could affect how fast the virus spreads between people, which could explain why levels of the variant are higher in the places where there are more cases.

Scientists will be analysing its behaviour to determine whether it really does spread faster than the existing versions of coronavirus.