Update (December 21): More than 40 countries have restricted UK arrivals while experts continue to investigate the implications of the variant. Oxford University epidemiologist
As public health officials worldwide mount vaccination campaigns against COVID-19, a new SARS-CoV-2 variant has rapidly taken hold in the UK, leading scientists to investigate if it carries any implications for the transmissibility of the virus, severity of infection, and success of a vaccine, though experts say it is unlikely to hamper vaccination efforts.
As of December 13, 1,108 COVID-19 cases with the new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England, says Public Health England in a statement on Monday (December 14). “High numbers of cases of the variant virus have been observed in some areas where there is also a high incidence of COVID-19,” the statement notes. “It is not yet known whether the variant is responsible for these increased numbers of cases.”
“We are still dealing with very thin evidence at the moment about this variant,” Sharon Peacock, the director of the UK COVID-19 Genomics Consortium (COG-UK), which randomly sequences positive COVID-19 samples around from the UK and discovered this variant, tells The Independent.
The group first identified the new variant in late September and began following its spread, but what surprised some experts was its sudden prevalence.
“This lineage came up quite rapidly,” Nick Loman, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham and a contributor to COG-UK, tells The Washington Post, noting that there were a “striking” number of mutations in the new variant, compared to the one or two he’s seen in other strains. Still, he notes that there is no proof yet that this variant is spreading faster or causing more severe illness.
Scientists detected 17 mutations in the variant, which scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01,” most in the segment of the virus’s genome that codes for the spike protein that surrounds the virus and allows it to bind to cellular receptors and infiltrate cells.
Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust biomedical research foundation, released a statement on Monday, calling the development “potentially serious,” though he cautioned that the implications for transmission of the virus and the efficacy of vaccines were still unclear.
“The pressure on the virus to evolve is increased by the fact that so many millions of people have now been infected,” he says. “Most of the mutations will not be significant or cause for concern, but some may give the virus an evolutionary advantage, which may lead to higher transmission or mean it is more harmful.”
COG-UK scientists stress that mutations are very common and that lineages arise and disappear quickly, according to a statement the group released on Monday.
There are few examples of the variant in other countries and it “does sort of seem to have come out of nowhere,” Loman tells The Independent.
This variant is not the first that scientists have detected in the novel coronavirus—the 614G variant that contains a spike protein mutation overtook the 614D variant in the spring. The mutation does not appear to cause more severe cases of COVID-19, but multiple studies indicate that it could be more contagious.
In the fall, another variant that scientists feared could be less sensitive to antibodies took hold in mink farms, leading several countries to call for the culling of millions of minks to prevent the variant from spreading to humans.
Even as the virus mutates, experts are quick to point out that it’s unlikely that it would mutate in such a way that would render a vaccine ineffective. “It seems hard to see that this virus is going to be able to evolve its way away from vaccine efficacy,” Egon Ozer, an infectious diseases expert at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, tells the Post.