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What do we know so far about the new virus mutation in South England?

This article was published on
April 21, 2021

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A recent surge of coronavirus cases in London and surrounding areas of Southeast England is thought to be linked to a new, fast-spreading variant of the COVID-19 virus. The new variant was detected in samples taken in late September in the Southeast English county of Kent, and now accounts for approximately 60% of COVID-19 cases in London. Aptly named “Variant Under Investigation,” or VUI-202012/01 for short, there are insufficient data and too many unknowns at this time to draw any conclusions about the new variant, according to the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and Science Magazine. Until scientists and public health officials run rigorous laboratory experiments and checks, they cannot provide definitive answers about the new variant. They stress the importance of care providers, public health practitioners, researchers, and policymakers keeping a vigilant eye on the new strain to learn more about its behavior and potential impacts on disease burden and spread.  Importantly, media channels report that there is no indication that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines will be less effective in protecting people from contracting this mutation of the virus. Additionally, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that the new variant is more deadly or linked to more severe illness. All viruses mutate and in the case of COVID-19, researchers have observed thousands of tiny modifications of since March 2020. However, the new variant of COVID-19 raises alarm for three primary reasons:  1 ) Early evidence indicates with “moderate confidence” that the new variant is significantly more transmissible than previous versions. One study from Imperial College London suggests that it is up to 70% more transmissible. Another way scientists measure virus transmission at a population level is by looking at the virus’ R0, or “R naught”, which describes the number of people one person can infect. A higher R naught is an indicator of pandemic growth, though actual growth depends on public health actions taken by the public. In recent weeks, the R naught in the region with the mutation is thought to have increased by 0.4 with the emergence of the new variant. From early laboratory experiments, scientists studying the new coronavirus variant have identified up to 23 changes to its genetic makeup, according to multiple sources. It is unprecedented to see the coronavirus seemingly acquire more than a dozen mutations at once, according to Science Magazine. One of these mutations demonstrated improved ability to infect human cells. This change is linked to the rapidly growing number of infections in Southeast England that, unabated, may only continue to rise. 2 ) Many of the mutations altered an important part of the virus called the spike protein, a crown-like structure encasing the viral genetic material and giving the virus its name. One such change alters a key piece of the spike protein, known as the “receptor-binding domain,” that binds to and unlocks the entryway into human cells. The new variant’s uncanny skill at entering and infecting cells likely gives it a leg up over other strains. This novel behavior may in part explain why the new variant has been detected in the majority of new cases in London, ousting other strains that may be less skilled in this mechanism.  3 ) The fact that the new variant has begun to rapidly replace other versions of COVID-19 as seen across testing centers in parts of England puts scientists on high alert. Virus mutations have the potential to introduce new and possibly aggressive behaviors, as well as increased transmission. For this reason, it is critical that scientists keep a close watch. These early research findings together suggest that the new variant is highly contagious, more so than previous strains. Its rapid dominance remains particularly concerning especially as it may take months to accurately capture how the new variant will take hold. However, it’s also important to not panic before we have more data and a more complete picture of this variant and its implications.

A recent surge of coronavirus cases in London and surrounding areas of Southeast England is thought to be linked to a new, fast-spreading variant of the COVID-19 virus. The new variant was detected in samples taken in late September in the Southeast English county of Kent, and now accounts for approximately 60% of COVID-19 cases in London. Aptly named “Variant Under Investigation,” or VUI-202012/01 for short, there are insufficient data and too many unknowns at this time to draw any conclusions about the new variant, according to the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and Science Magazine. Until scientists and public health officials run rigorous laboratory experiments and checks, they cannot provide definitive answers about the new variant. They stress the importance of care providers, public health practitioners, researchers, and policymakers keeping a vigilant eye on the new strain to learn more about its behavior and potential impacts on disease burden and spread.  Importantly, media channels report that there is no indication that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines will be less effective in protecting people from contracting this mutation of the virus. Additionally, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that the new variant is more deadly or linked to more severe illness. All viruses mutate and in the case of COVID-19, researchers have observed thousands of tiny modifications of since March 2020. However, the new variant of COVID-19 raises alarm for three primary reasons:  1 ) Early evidence indicates with “moderate confidence” that the new variant is significantly more transmissible than previous versions. One study from Imperial College London suggests that it is up to 70% more transmissible. Another way scientists measure virus transmission at a population level is by looking at the virus’ R0, or “R naught”, which describes the number of people one person can infect. A higher R naught is an indicator of pandemic growth, though actual growth depends on public health actions taken by the public. In recent weeks, the R naught in the region with the mutation is thought to have increased by 0.4 with the emergence of the new variant. From early laboratory experiments, scientists studying the new coronavirus variant have identified up to 23 changes to its genetic makeup, according to multiple sources. It is unprecedented to see the coronavirus seemingly acquire more than a dozen mutations at once, according to Science Magazine. One of these mutations demonstrated improved ability to infect human cells. This change is linked to the rapidly growing number of infections in Southeast England that, unabated, may only continue to rise. 2 ) Many of the mutations altered an important part of the virus called the spike protein, a crown-like structure encasing the viral genetic material and giving the virus its name. One such change alters a key piece of the spike protein, known as the “receptor-binding domain,” that binds to and unlocks the entryway into human cells. The new variant’s uncanny skill at entering and infecting cells likely gives it a leg up over other strains. This novel behavior may in part explain why the new variant has been detected in the majority of new cases in London, ousting other strains that may be less skilled in this mechanism.  3 ) The fact that the new variant has begun to rapidly replace other versions of COVID-19 as seen across testing centers in parts of England puts scientists on high alert. Virus mutations have the potential to introduce new and possibly aggressive behaviors, as well as increased transmission. For this reason, it is critical that scientists keep a close watch. These early research findings together suggest that the new variant is highly contagious, more so than previous strains. Its rapid dominance remains particularly concerning especially as it may take months to accurately capture how the new variant will take hold. However, it’s also important to not panic before we have more data and a more complete picture of this variant and its implications.

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What our experts say

A recent surge of coronavirus cases in London and surrounding areas of Southeast England is thought to be linked to a new, fast-spreading variant of the COVID-19 virus. The new variant was detected in samples taken in late September in the Southeast English county of Kent, and now accounts for approximately 60% of COVID-19 cases in London.

Aptly named “Variant Under Investigation,” or VUI-202012/01 for short, there are insufficient data and too many unknowns at this time to draw any conclusions about the new variant, according to the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and Science Magazine. Until scientists and public health officials run rigorous laboratory experiments and checks, they cannot provide definitive answers about the new variant. They stress the importance of care providers, public health practitioners, researchers, and policymakers keeping a vigilant eye on the new strain to learn more about its behavior and potential impacts on disease burden and spread. 

Importantly, media channels report that there is no indication that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines will be less effective in protecting people from contracting this mutation of the virus. Additionally, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that the new variant is more deadly or linked to more severe illness.

All viruses mutate and in the case of COVID-19, researchers have observed thousands of tiny modifications of since March 2020. However, the new variant of COVID-19 raises alarm for three primary reasons: 

1 ) Early evidence indicates with “moderate confidence” that the new variant is significantly more transmissible than previous versions. One study from Imperial College London suggests that it is up to 70% more transmissible.

Another way scientists measure virus transmission at a population level is by looking at the virus’ R0, or “R naught”, which describes the number of people one person can infect. A higher R naught is an indicator of pandemic growth, though actual growth depends on public health actions taken by the public. In recent weeks, the R naught in the region with the mutation is thought to have increased by 0.4 with the emergence of the new variant.

From early laboratory experiments, scientists studying the new coronavirus variant have identified up to 23 changes to its genetic makeup, according to multiple sources. It is unprecedented to see the coronavirus seemingly acquire more than a dozen mutations at once, according to Science Magazine. One of these mutations demonstrated improved ability to infect human cells. This change is linked to the rapidly growing number of infections in Southeast England that, unabated, may only continue to rise.

2 ) Many of the mutations altered an important part of the virus called the spike protein, a crown-like structure encasing the viral genetic material and giving the virus its name. One such change alters a key piece of the spike protein, known as the “receptor-binding domain,” that binds to and unlocks the entryway into human cells. The new variant’s uncanny skill at entering and infecting cells likely gives it a leg up over other strains. This novel behavior may in part explain why the new variant has been detected in the majority of new cases in London, ousting other strains that may be less skilled in this mechanism. 

3 ) The fact that the new variant has begun to rapidly replace other versions of COVID-19 as seen across testing centers in parts of England puts scientists on high alert. Virus mutations have the potential to introduce new and possibly aggressive behaviors, as well as increased transmission. For this reason, it is critical that scientists keep a close watch. These early research findings together suggest that the new variant is highly contagious, more so than previous strains. Its rapid dominance remains particularly concerning especially as it may take months to accurately capture how the new variant will take hold. However, it’s also important to not panic before we have more data and a more complete picture of this variant and its implications.

Context and background

Over the weekend of December 18-20, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced heightened lockdown restrictions for London and surrounding areas of Southeast England as the number of reported coronavirus infections continues to surge at an alarming rate. On December 20, London moved from Tier 3 to Tier 4, England’s newest and highest level of lockdown protocol. The recent significant increase in cases in Southeast England is believed to be in part driven by the new variant. 

All viruses mutate as part of their life cycle. As a virus spreads over time and encounters more and more people, chance mutations in its genetic sequence helps it evade host defenses such as the immune system or antibody therapies. This is the pressure of natural selection at work. Mutations can also happen by chance. As the virus replicates itself millions of times, it is prone to what we would consider a typo. Researchers have observed thousands of these “typos” or genetic modifications (or mutations) in the COVID-19 virus. 

Not all mutations are cause for concern, but some can be. Some do not change the virus’ properties, such as the ability to infect or give rise to more severe illness, and some can actually hurt the virus. Nevertheless, the sudden onset of a new strain should put scientists on alert for health implications and possible additional changes.

The true nature and implications of this new variant are yet to be determined as it continues to spread. In addition to the UK, the same receptor-binding domain mutation to the spike protein seen in the new variant has been independently reported in South Africa as the dominant strain with a separate origin, according to the WHO. This variant has also been detected in Australia, Denmark, Italy, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

Resources

  1. Christmas Rules Tightened for Millions in the UK. 2020, December 20. (BBC World Service Global News Podcast)
  2. New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) Meeting on SARS-CoV-2 Variant Under Investigation VUI 202012/01. (UK Knowledge Hub)
  3. Boris Johnson Tightens UK Lockdown, Citing Fast-Spreading Version of Virus. (US, NYTimes)
  4. Mutant coronavirus in the United Kingdom Sets Off Alarms but its Importance Remains Unclear. (Science Magazine)
  5. How Scientists Quantify the Intensity of an Outbreak like COVID-19. (University of Michigan Health Lab)
  6. ‘We Cannot Continue with Christmas:’ U.K. Tightens Rules as Virus Variant Spreads. (NPR)
  7. New Coronavirus Variant: What Do We Know? [British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) - BBC News]
  8. What We Know -- And What We Don’t -- About the UK Coronavirus Variant. (CNN)
  9. The Coronavirus is Mutating -- Does it Matter? (Nature)
  10. The U.K. Coronavirus Variant: What We Know? (NYTimes)
  11. SARS-CoV-2 Variant -- United Kingdom (WHO)

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