New coronavirus variant. Photo: BBC
New coronavirus variant. Photo: BBC

Three new variants of COVID-19 have been detected in recent weeks, discoveries which have led to fresh fears across the world because some make the virus up to 70 percent more transmissible.

What is the new variant?

The new variant of coronavirus – known as VUI-202012/01 – has been linked with an exponential rise in coronavirus cases in the south-east of England, with experts saying the new variant is more transmissible than others, according to Yorkshire Post.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock first 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.

Photo: Deutsche Welle
Photo: Deutsche Welle

The new strain was first detected in September, and in November around a quarter of coronavirus cases in London were caused by the variant.

As it has spread quickly, scientists believe it could be 70 percent more transmissible than other variants, though research is ongoing to try to understand exactly what the variant means for the UK.

Has it spread to other countries?

Genomic researchers have found the new and more infectious variant of Covid-19 has already spread around the UK, with cases identified in Wales and Scotland. The Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium sampled cases around the UK and found the variant is also in the South West, Midlands and North of England, areas that are under Tier 2 and 3 restrictions.

“It is certainly not isolated in one place, it has begun to spread to many places in England,” said Professor Tom Connor, a genomics expert from Cardiff University who has sequenced more viruses in the past week than the whole of France during the pandemic.

Where has the variant spread to?

After the variant was identified in southeast England, countries across the world scrambled to close their borders to the UK and prevent it from reaching their citizens, as reported by Sky News.

Canada is the latest to confirm a case of the variant after it discovered two people with the infection in Ontario. The cases were a couple in the south of the province with no known travel history, exposure, or high-risk contact.

Japan also said it had reported its first cases of the fast-spreading variant, including a man who had visited the UK and one of his family members.

A case in France is a French citizen who lives in England and had left London for Tours on 19 December. He is currently self-isolating at home and is said to be doing fine.

Spain also reported its first case of the variant on Saturday, although no further details have yet been revealed.

On Tuesday evening, the UK and French governments reached an agreement allowing rail, air and sea services to resume for French citizens or residents, or for urgent reasons such as hauliers transporting goods. They are now allowed to cross the border if they have a negative coronavirus test. However, the case discovered by French health authorities entered France before the travel ban was imposed.

Photo: The New York Times
Photo: The New York Times

Earlier this week, French health minister Olivier Veran admitted it was "entirely possible" the new variant was already circulating in the country, despite officials having found no evidence at the time.

Singapore has confirmed one case, while 11 others in quarantine have returned preliminarily positive results.

Spain also banned entrants from the UK from Tuesday this week, although Spanish nationals were allowed to return, with the move having been brought in just two days before Christmas.

Cases of the new variant have also been confirmed in Denmark, Italy, Gibraltar, the Netherlands and Australia. While it is believed to spread faster, there is no evidence so far that the new variant causes more serious illness or is able to evade vaccines - the first of which has started to arrive in several European countries.

Greece, Germany, Spain and Italy are among those that have taken deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, and 10,000 doses will arrive in Ireland ahead of its vaccination program beginning on Wednesday.

European countries have started taking deliveries after the jab was approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Why is the UK variant getting so much attention?

That doesn’t necessarily that the UK variant is the only new strain in circulation, and the reason the UK was one of the first countries to find a variant of note first is down to the vast amount of research being done on the virus here.

Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK and a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: “We’ve sequenced 150,000 genomes which is about half the world’s data, so if you’re going to find something anywhere you’re going to find it probably here first.

“If this occurs in places that don’t have any sequencing you’re not going to find it at all.”

What that means, is that there could be – and almost certainly are – many more variants of coronavirus dotted all over the globe, they just haven’t been found yet.

However, since these variants are not suspected to be any more transmissible or deadly than Covid-19 already was, they will not have received the same attention at the UK’s variant.

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