The new and more infectious variant of COVID-19 first found in Kent will become the world’s dominant strain, the director of the UK’s genetic surveillance programme has said.
The variant, which has been detected across Britain and in more than 50 countries, is "going to sweep the world, in all probability”, Professor Sharon Peacock from the COVID-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) Consortium told the BBC’s Newscast podcast.
The new variant initially led to London and parts of south and eastern England being pushed into Tier 4 restrictions prior to Christmas, before stricter measures were introduced throughout the UK.
Analysis of the variant, known as B117, suggests it is up to 70% more transmissible than the previous strain that was dominant in the UK.
Prof Peacock added: "I think that what’s concerning about this is the 117 variant that we've had circulating... is beginning to mutate again and get new mutations, which could affect the way that we handle the virus in terms of immunity and the effectiveness of vaccines.
"And so I think it’s concerning that the 117… is now mutating to have this new mutation that could threaten vaccination."
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The professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge said that transmissibility was likely to cause scientists difficulties for years to come.
“Once we get on top of it [COVID-19] or it mutates itself out of being virulent – causing disease – then we can stop worrying about it,”she said.
“But I think, looking in the future, [scientists are] going to be doing this [analysis of COVID variants] for years. We’re still going to be doing this 10 years down the line, in my view.”
Despite data suggesting the mutant variant may be more deadly, there is no evidence to indicate existing treatments, such as dexamethasone, will not be effective against it.
A study has suggested that people infected with the UK variant are less likely to report a loss of taste and smell.
There are now four “variants of concern” of the virus that causes COVID-19 identified by government advisers, three of these have been found in the UK, and the fourth is the Brazil variant identified in people who had travelled to Japan.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he thought the world will be "more or less free of this" by around Christmas.
But he warned that because of the new variants being idenfitied that "I think we do have to keep our borders pretty tight at the moment".
“But we’ve identified these significant new variants that are out there and we need to be able to arm ourselves against them and we don’t have new vaccines that could potentially arm ourselves against these new variants yet," he told ITV's Peston.
“I know that companies are working very hard on developing new vaccines in order to protect against these potential new variants that might affect us so I do think we need to be very cautious at the moment about travel abroad.”
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