But this isn’t the first time the virus has mutated since the start of the pandemic, and it may not even be the first time that a mutation – or change in the virus’s genetic material – has altered. its infectious nature.
So, should we be worried?
Mutations – although frighteningly named – aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Each virus mutates because when it comes into contact with a host, it makes new copies of itself that can infect other cells.
And initially, scientists were pretty relaxed about finding the new COVID mutation.
However, as he announced new level 4 restrictions for millions of people in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that new strain variant may be up to 70% more transmissible and could increase the R-value by 0.4.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty also stepped up the rhetoric slightly – and the head of an influential research body went further, saying it was “a real cause for concern”.
Professor Whitty said he’s alerted the World Health Organization – and will focus on analyzing data related to the spread of the mutation.
He advised people not to travel outside of London and the south-east as there was a “significant risk” of the new strain of the virus spreading.
He said: “Due to the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modeling data and rapidly increasing incidence rates in the Southeast, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG ) now considers the new strain to be able to spread further. quickly. ”
But he assured the public there was “no current evidence” to suggest that the new strain caused a higher death rate or that it affected vaccines and treatments.
He said “urgent work” was underway to confirm this and added: “Given this latest development, it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission. . ”
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a medical research charity, went further than Professor Whitty, describing the strain, in a tweet, as “disturbing and really concerning.”
He added: “Research is ongoing to better understand it, but urgent action now is essential. There is no part of the UK and the world that shouldn’t be affected. As in many countries, the situation is fragile. ”
RNA viruses such as coronavirus are more likely to undergo slight changes as copies are made.
In some cases, a mutation can even weaken the virus. But in others, they could make the virus more infectious or cause more serious illness.
COVID-19 mutates about every week, with most mutations having no impact on the virus.
Sky science correspondent Thomas Moore said the new mutation was “not entirely unusual” but “it’s something they will be watching very closely.”
What are the different strains?
So far, there have been at least seven major clusters, or strains, of COVID-19 when it adapts to its human hosts.
The original strain, discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December of last year, is known as the L.
It then mutated to strain S in early 2020, before being followed by strains V and G.
The G strain was most often found in Europe and North America – but because these continents were slow to restrict movement, it allowed the virus to spread faster and therefore mutate more into GR, GH and GV strains. .
Meanwhile, the original L strain persisted longer in Asia because several countries – including China – quickly closed their borders and halted movements.
Several other less frequent mutations are grouped under the O strain.
In Denmark, authorities have expressed concern over a strain of the virus found in 12 people linked to mink farming.
They feared the mutation could interfere with the effectiveness of a vaccine because it had occurred in the spike protein, and as a result the government ordered a mass slaughter of up to 17 million animals and a one-month lockdown for people living in the northwest of the country.
What are the most common strains in the world?
G strains are now dominant in the world, especially in Italy and Europe, coinciding with peaks of epidemics.
A specific mutation, D614G, is the most common variant. Some experts say this variation made the virus more infectious, but other studies have contradicted this.
During this time, earlier strains such as the original L strain and V strain gradually disappear.
Reuters news agency analysis shows Australia’s rapid response to the pandemic and effective social distancing measures have eliminated transmission of previous L and S strains in the country, and new infections are the result of G strains imported from overseas.
In Asia, G, GH and GR strains have been on the increase since early March, more than a month after their release in Europe.
Will the mutations affect the vaccine?
So far, experts have not found any variant that could make a vaccine less effective, and the virus has been slow to mutate.
Professor Whitty said it would be “surprising” if this had an effect on the vaccine, although he added that there should be more concrete data relatively soon.
Federico Giorgi, a researcher at the University of Bologna who coordinated a study on strains of COVID-19, told Science Daily: “The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is probably already optimized to affect humans, which explains its weak evolution. change.
“This means that the treatments we are developing, including a vaccine, could be effective against all strains of the virus. ”
A group of scientists from several institutions, including the University of Sheffield and Harvard University, have also suggested that the G strains might be a better target for a vaccine because these strains have more advanced proteins on their surface.
However, Lucy van Dorp, a researcher at the University College of London Genetics Institute, said we need to stay “vigilant” and continue to watch for any new mutations.
The best way to make sure the virus does not escape a vaccine is to stop the spread of infections and reduce the chance of mutations.
Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Melbourne’s Deakin University School of Health, said: “If the virus changes drastically, especially spike proteins, then it could escape a vaccine.
“It reduces the chances of a change in a squillion which is terrible news for us. ”