Experts have insisted that mutations are to be expected and not necessarily feared after the government announced that a new strain of coronavirus had been identified in England.
The UK has notified the World Health Organisation over the latest variant, which appears to be responsible for the faster spread of the virus throughout the southeast of the country, health secretary Matt Hancock said.
More than 1,000 infections related to this specific mutation have been reported in nearly 60 different local authorities in England, though the government insists the new strain does not cause a more serious disease and is unlikely to affect the nationwide rollout of vaccines.
Scientists have praised the speed at which the UK’s genomics network picked up the mutation, adding that more information and analysis would be needed to determine the threat posed by this particular strand of Sars-CoV-2.
The mutation that was identified in Denmark’s mink population earlier this year is one of the many genetic variations to have been observed in Sars-CoV-2 during the course of the pandemic.
That strain has shown “moderately decreased sensitivity” to the body’s neutralising antibodies, but there have been no indications it could reduce the effectiveness of a vaccine, despite apparent genetic changes to the virus’s spike protein.
The UK’s new strain contains similar mutations to the spike receptor, which is the target of most vaccines currently in development, but Andrew Davidson, a reader in virology at the University of Bristol, does not believe this will present a significant issue.
“The vaccine produces antibodies against many regions in the spike protein. It is very unlikely a single change would make the vaccine less effective,” he said. “However, this could happen over time as more mutations occur. It happens every year with flu, for example.”
Dr Davidson explained that viruses such as Sars-CoV-2 are “constantly mutating” and that scientists were already aware of an earlier strain, called D614G, which has become dominant in many countries.
“Only changes that make viruses more ‘fit’ for transmission are likely to be stable and result in new circulating strains,” he said. “This does not mean that a new virus will cause more severe disease or avoid vaccines but it could transmit more efficiently between people. This has already happened for Sars-CoV-2.
“It is very important that we carry out active surveillance to identify changes in Sars-CoV-2, as they occur, and study the properties of any new viruses to determine if they pose a greater threat to human health. Preparedness is key to prevention of spread and updating vaccines if necessary.”
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the new strain was a reminder “that there is still so much to learn about Covid-19”.
“The speed at which this has been picked up on is also testament to this phenomenal research effort,” he said. “However, there is no room for complacency. We have to remain humble and be prepared to adapt and respond to new and continued challenges as we move into 2021.
“This pandemic is not over and there will still be surprises in the virus, how it evolves and the trajectory of the pandemic in the coming year.”
Jonathan Stoye, a virologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, explained that variants and new strains typically arise in viruses as “a result of errors in copying viral genetic material”. This, he said, led to small changes in virus proteins.
Mr Hancock said scientists at the Porton Down laboratory near Salisbury were analysing the new mutation.
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