EPIDEMIC: A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in the UK, Matt Hancock has confirmed, warning that it could be more contagious than other strains of Covid-19.
The Health Secretary stressed that it was highly likely to be beaten by a vaccine and unlikely to be any more deadly than other variants of the disease. But he suggested it is ‘increasing rapidly’ and could be behind the steep rise in cases in London and the south-east of England. During a statement to the House of Commons in which he confirmed the capital and a number of other areas would be moved into tier three on Wednesday,
Mr Hancock said: ‘We have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the south of England. ‘Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We have 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 and numbers are increasing rapidly.’
Mr Hancock said the World Health Organisation had been notified about the development and that Public Health England would continuing analysing it at Porton Down.
‘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 its highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine’, he continued.
‘But it shows we have got to be vigilant and follow the rules.’
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. ‘In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days.’
Dr Andrew Davidson, a Reader in Virology at the University of Bristol, explained ‘When viruses like SARS-CoV-2 [the virus behind Covid-19] replicate they are constantly mutating. However, only changes that make them more “fit” for transmission are likely to be stable and result in new circulating strains. ‘This does not mean that a new virus will cause more severe disease or avoid vaccines but it could transmit more efficiently between people. This has already happened for SARS-CoV-2.’
He said that one concern could be that a more contagious virus could ‘hamper’ efforts to control the spread. Numerous other experts explained that variations in the Spike protein of the virus have already been observed around the world – and that is to be expected in viruses. Alan McNally, a Professor in Microbial Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘Hopefully the narrative here is how amazing our surveillance has been at picking this up.
‘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.’ Meanwhile, hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent are already ‘under pressure’, Health Secretary Mr Hancock warned, adding: ‘We know that this doubling of cases will be mirrored in hospital admissions and it only takes a few doublings for the NHS to be overwhelmed.’