Concerning detail of new Covid-19 strain leaves scientists stumped

Tom Flanagan
·News Reporter
·4-min read

Scientists are stumped over how quickly a new strain of coronavirus is spreading throughout the UK.

Researchers at COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium from the University of Birmingham, who have been working with the British government during the pandemic, say they are “concerned” due to the strain’s unusually high mutation rate.

“The initial modelling has shown this is growing faster than [the UK’s most dominant strain], and we don't have that same epidemiological link to importations,” Professor Nick Loman told a briefing.

"It makes you wonder exactly what's going on."

He said it appeared the new strain appears to have “come out of nowhere”, and said the surge in cases linked to the strain differ from normal outbreaks.

Crowds of shoppers walk under the Christmas lights in Regent Street, in London, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.
Crowds of shoppers pictured in London over the weekend. Source: AP

“We are seeing a really sizeable fraction of those cases associated with this new variant. That gives us a little bit more concern, it is a little more unusual compared to what we normally see.”

The new variant, named VUI – 202012/01, first emerged in September and while experts say mutations are common, Prof Loman said the new strain has a “significantly larger number” than expected.

COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium say they have found 17 mutations.

However, there is no evidence to suggest the mutations will cause more disease or more severe disease.

Virus mutations ‘happen all the time’

On Monday (local time), Health Minister Matt Hancock plunged London into the government’s strictest tier of restrictions from Wednesday, suggesting the new strain had led to the lockdown.

However, experts moved to downplay its severity, appearing to take aim at Mr Hancock, who has faced widespread criticism for his perceived incompetence throughout the pandemic.

Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool and Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) expert, said on Tuesday that more information was needed on the COVID variant and urged people to “leave the virology to the scientists”.

People wear face masks as they walk in Covent Garden, in London, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.
London will face the UK's toughest tier of restrictions for Christmas. Source: AP

“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.”

England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the detection of the new variant was not the reason for the decision to put London in Tier 3 – the reason was the sharp rise in infections.

Dr Andrew Page, the head of informatics at Norwich's Quadram Institute, said the strain had played a large role in sharp rises in infection rates in London and East Anglia.

“Mutations happen all the time,” Dr Page told BBC Radio Norfolk.

“We first saw this lineage a few weeks ago in Wyndham and it has expanded now within Norfolk to be around 20 per cent of all positive strains that we sequence.

“And if you compare that to London there’s only about 10 per cent of cases that have this lineage. So it’s a bit of a problem but we don’t really know what it does or if it’s worse than normal.”

Asked how new strains of the virus arise, Dr Page said the changes happened rapidly and were usually “nothing to worry about”.

“These changes happen all the time, we’ve tracked thousands of these. It’s not something to worry about, it just does happen. And hopefully this change isn’t a problem.”

Cases and deaths continue to rise

Public Health England (PHE) said that as of December 13, 1,108 cases with this new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England.

The UK recorded 25,161 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and 612 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the virus, according to official data.

Tuesday’s data had shown 18,450 new coronavirus infections and 506 deaths.

The UK is closing in on two million cases since the pandemic began while it has recorded 65,520 deaths overall.

With Yahoo UK

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