Explainer- New variant of coronavirus in the UK: How worrying is it?

LONDON (Reuters) – A new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the UK and is causing high levels of concern among its European neighbors, some of whom have severed transport links.

The strain, referred to by some experts as B.1.1.7, is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to appear, but is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the United Kingdom.


Most scientists say yes. The new variant quickly became the dominant strain in COVID-19 cases in parts of southern England and was linked to an increase in hospitalization rates, especially in London and adjacent Kent county.

Although it was first seen in the UK in September, by the week of December 9 in London, 62% of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. That’s compared to 28% of cases three weeks earlier.

The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they have detected cases of new strain. He was identified in the Netherlands in early December.

Several cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have also been reported to ECDC, the European Agency for Disease Monitoring, by Iceland and Denmark. Belgian media reports say that cases have also been detected there.

“It’s fair to take it seriously,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. Shaun Fitzgerald, a visiting professor at Cambridge University, said the situation was “extremely worrying”.


The main concern is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively large number of changes – and some of these affect its ability to spread.

Scientists say it is about 40% -70% more transmissible. The British government said on Saturday that it could increase the “R” reproduction rate by 0.4.

Security agents patrol the closed Eurostar terminal area of ​​Brussels South Station after Britain’s European neighbors began closing their doors to passengers in the UK amid alarms about the rapid spread of the coronavirus strain in Brussels, Belgium , December 21, 2020. REUTERS / Yves Herman

This means it is spreading faster in the UK, making the pandemic there more difficult to control and increasing the risk of rapid spread to other countries.

“The new B.1.1.7 … still seems to have all the human lethality that the original had, but with an increased ability to transmit,” said Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene. & Tropical Medicine.


Scientists say there is no evidence that vaccines currently in the UK – made by Pfizer and BioNtech – or other developing COVID-19 photos will not protect against this variant.

“This is unlikely to have a minor effect, if any, on the vaccine’s effectiveness,” said Adam Finn, a vaccine specialist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol.

The British chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, also said that COVID-19 vaccines seem to be adequate in generating an immune response to the coronavirus variant.

“We don’t see … any gross protein changes that will reduce the vaccine’s effectiveness so far,” said Julian Tang, a professor and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester.


To some extent, yes.

One of the mutations in the new variant affects one of the three genomic targets used by some PCR tests. This means that in those tests, that target area or “channel” would be negative.

“This has affected the ability of some tests to detect the virus,” said Robert Shorten, an expert in microbiology at the Association for Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine.

Because PCR tests generally detect several target genes, however, a mutation in the spike protein only partially affects the test, reducing the risk of false negative results.


Yes. The strains of the virus that causes COVID-19 have emerged in recent months in South Africa, Spain, Denmark and other countries that have expressed concern.

However, so far it has not been found that none contain mutations that make it more deadly or more likely to evade vaccines or treatments.


Vallance said on Saturday that he believes the new option could have started in the UK. Some European scientists have accredited British expertise in genomic surveillance to identify the mutation.

“The UK has one of the most comprehensive genetic surveillance programs in the world – 5% to 10% of all virus samples are genetically tested. Few countries are doing better, “Steven Van Gucht, head of viral diseases at the Belgian Institute of Health, said on Monday.

Additional report by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, edited by Josephine Mason and Mark Heinrich