4103 new mutation of covid in uk
Shoppers wearing protective face coverings to combat the spread of the coronavirus, pass under the Christmas lights on Oxford Street in central London. Photo: New Straits Times.

Just as vaccines begin to offer hope for a path out of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in Britain this past weekend sounded an urgent alarm about what they called a highly contagious new variant of the coronavirus circulating in England.

Citing the rapid spread of the virus through London and surrounding areas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed the country’s most stringent lockdown since March.

“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” he said.

The government has placed some regions including London under new, stricter coronavirus restrictions, known as Tier 4. People in Tier 4 areas will not be able to gather with anyone outside their household for Christmas, while those in the rest of the country can only gather on Christmas Day itself, as cited by The India Express.

Train stations in London filled with crowds of people scrambling to leave the city as the restrictions went into effect. On Sunday, European countries began closing their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom, hoping to shut out the new iteration of the pathogen.

What do we know about this new variant of COVID-19?

According to First Post, the new UK variant, known as VUI–202012/01 or lineage B.1.1.7, was first identified in the county of Kent on September 20. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, first announced the existence of the variant on December 14; it was subsequently confirmed by Public Health England and the UK’s COVID-19 sequencing consortium.

The variant carries 14 defining mutations including seven in the spike protein, the protein that mediates entry of the virus into human cells. This is a relatively large number of changes compared to the many variants we have in circulation globally.

To date, genetic profiles – or genomes – of this variant have been largely sequenced and shared from the UK but include some in Denmark and two cases in Australia. There have also been reports of a case in the Netherlands. These countries all have very large genome sequencing efforts and it is very possible that these observations do not reflect the true distribution of this variant of the virus, which could exist undetected elsewhere. We will know more as more genomes are generated and shared.

Thanks to the efforts of data sharing, genomic surveillance and COVID-19 test results in the UK, it seems that this variant is now starting to dominate over existing versions of the virus and that it may be responsible for an increasing proportion of cases in parts of the country, particularly in regions where we also have rapidly expanding case numbers.

It is always very difficult to disentangle cause and effect in these cases. For example increases in the appearance of certain mutations can be due to viral lineages carrying them rising in frequency just because they happen to be the ones present in an area where transmission is high, for example, due to human activities or choice of interventions.

Though this is still a possibility, there are clearly enough concerning observations so far for this variant to warrant very careful characterisation, surveillance and interventions to curb transmission.

What we don’t know yet?

Scientists are concerned about the new variant’s spike protein. The spike protein is the part of the virus that allows it to infiltrate cells in the lungs, throat, etc. This happens because due to the spike protein’s interaction with the ACE-2 receptor. The mutation on the spike protein may make it easier for the virus to interact with ACE-2.

The mutations have also raised concerns whether vaccines currently under development will work against the variant. Vaccines are designed to develop antibodies against the spike protein. Thus, there is a possibility that the mutation may not allow the vaccine to develop antibodies. Scientists would be monitoring this to take appropriate actions.

5836 new mutation of covid in uk
Photo: BBC News

Is it more dangerous?

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, stated clearly that there was no evidence to date that this variant alters disease severity, either in terms of mortality or the seriousness of the cases of COVID-19 for those infected. Work is underway to confirm this.

The Guardian quoted Whitty as saying that the new strain could be up to 70 percent more transmissible and could increase the R-value by 0.4 or more. So far, it has not appeared to raise the risk of severe illness or the mortality rate, Money Control cites.

Where did the variant come from?

Right now, we don’t know. To date, scientists have not identified any closely related viruses to support the theory that the variant had been introduced from abroad. The patterns of mutations observed are more supportive of an extended period of adaptive evolution most likely in the UK based on current data.

Similar patterns of mutation to these have been observed in the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in chronically infected patients with weaker immune systems. The current hypothesis is that such a scenario of chronic infection, in a single patient, may have played a role in the origin of this variant. This will continue to be investigated.

How many variations of SARS-CoV-2 have we found?

There are many thousands of lineages of SARS-CoV-2 which differ on average by only a small number of defining mutations. It remains true that SARS-CoV-2 currently in global circulation have little genomicindyc diversity. Subtleties in the mutations carried in different lineages can, however, be very useful for reconstructing patterns of transmission.

As an example, work early in the pandemic used lineage assignments to identify at least a thousand introductions of SARS-CoV-2 into the UK.

5525 new mutation of covid in uk
Photo: FV Hospital

Why is this one different?

It is important to note that many of the mutations defining the UK variant have been observed in SARS-CoV-2 before and even sometimes quite early in the pandemic.

Yet the UK variant, or lineage, is defined by an unusual number and combination of mutations. One of these mutations, N501Y, has previously been shown to increase the binding of the virus to receptors in our cells. N501Y was first sequenced in a virus in Brazil in April 2020 and is currently associated with a SARS-CoV-2 variant also rising in frequency in South Africa %8.

Scientists currently do not have enough information about the new variant to know if it will impact existing guidelines such as social distancing and mask-wearing. As the virus is believed to be more transmissible, it would lead to many more deaths even with the same mortality rate. Thus, safety protocols will remain in place.

For more updated information about COVID-19 and vaccines, check out KnowInsiders website!

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