Health experts warn ‘too early’ to fear new strain of coronavirus discovered in UK


Health experts have warned it is “too early” to be concerned about the new strain of coronavirus found in the UK – or to make claims about the mutation.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs the new variant could be linked to the faster spread of the virus in southern England.

Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that the new strain was “potentially of concern” and said more “precautions” may be needed.

New measures must be imposed on parts of southern England after the rise in cases of the potentially fatal bug.

It is hoped that the vaccine will work against the new strain

But Hancock stressed that there was no evidence to suggest that the variant is more likely to cause serious illness.

He added that it is highly unlikely that the mutation will fail to respond to a Covid-19 vaccine.

The new strand of the virus, first seen in Kent, is being evaluated by government scientists at its Porton Down research lab.

Alan McNally, professor of evolutionary microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, said: “Huge efforts are underway to characterize the variant and understand its emergence.

“It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is a normal viral course and we expect new variants to appear and disappear and emerge over time.

“It is too early to be worried or not about this new variant or not, but I am impressed with the monitoring efforts in the UK which have allowed this to be picked up so quickly. ”

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “The genetic information of many viruses can change very quickly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to be transmitted more efficiently or to escape. vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect.

“Even though a new genetic variant of the virus has emerged and is spreading to many parts of the UK and across the world, it can happen purely by chance.

“Therefore, it is important that we study all genetic changes as they occur, to determine if they are affecting the behavior of the virus, and until we do this important work, it is premature to make any statements about the potential impacts of the virus mutation. . ”

Scientists will now grow cultures of the strain in labs to see how it responds, to see if it produces the same antibody response to the existing strain, to see how the vaccine might impact it, and to get the full picture. of what that means.

However, a full investigation can take up to two weeks.

While no more is known about the new strain than is known, the places where it is observed – the south of England – are the places where the number of cases is high, indicating that it could be because the strain is spreading faster.

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However, this needs to be looked at in more detail.

Experts will also examine samples across the country to see if the strain has spread and how fast.

This is the first time that English authorities have investigated a strain of coronavirus in this way.

A mutation is a change in the genome of the virus, the set of genetic instructions containing all the information the virus needs to function.

When the virus comes into contact with a host and begins to replicate, this set of instructions is copied, but errors can occur during this process.

Like all infectious agents, Covid-19 mutates during its circulation within the human population, but this often has no real impact on the virus.

These mutations can often be related to the shape of the virus spike protein.

The Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) consortium is monitoring new genetic variants as they spread and studying whether these changes result in detectable changes in the behavior of the virus or the severity of Covid-19 infections.

Most mutations that occur and spread have no detectable effect on the biology of the virus.

But a few have the potential to alter both the biological behavior of the virus and to persist if they confer an advantage on the virus.

Professor Wendy Barclay, Head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London, said: “SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and mutations are expected to occur as it replicates.

“It is essential that we understand the consequences of any change in the genome of the virus – for example, how this might impact disease, transmission and the immune response to the virus.

“Some variants with changes in the spike protein have already been seen as the virus is intensely sequenced here in the UK and around the world.

“There is no evidence that the newly reported variant causes more serious disease.

“This variant contains mutations in the spike protein which is the primary target of vaccines, and it will be important to establish whether these impact the effectiveness of the vaccine by performing experiments in the coming weeks. ”


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