The New Variant
The Prime Minister announced yesterday that a new variant of the virus (VUI-202012/01 or the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020) had been isolated with 1,108 cases so far identified at the time of writing, mostly in the South and East of England. This includes Hertfordshire.
Why do we have a variant strain?
Variants of viruses arise all the time in response to either the way our body responds to viruses or because of the environment, or both. This is natural. Some variants become “fitter” or better able to infect and reproduce, others fail. Coronavirus mutations, on the whole, do not change as much as ‘flu viruses and are a little more stable, so we may or may not need a regular updating of the vaccine in future.
How did we find out about it?
During lockdown 2 in late November, an unusual pattern of transmission in Kent was identified by Public Health England, with infections rising very rapidly whilst the rest of the country slowed down. This spread geographically. This led to a close look at the genetic types of cluster samples and from this the identification of this new strain of the virus. Further sampling across the South East, London and part of Essex indicated an increasing spread of the new variant strain.
It is estimated that the new strain is becoming the predominant type spreading in many of the areas of London, the South East and East of England (responsible for close to 60% of new cases).
The new strain is found everywhere in the country but at variable proportions at the moment. It is only a matter of time before it becomes the predominant spread everywhere in England.
What do we know about this variant?
The variant is still under study, but there are some things we know so far.
There are a number of variants of SARS-CoV-2 including one isolated in Danish Mink. This latest variant is a different variant, and while found in Gibraltar, Denmark and Australia is thought to have originated in either South East England (Kent) or London
First, it produces more virus in people who are infectious (a higher viral load) which means more virus can be breathed out in droplets or aerosol. So there is more of it breathed out to get into someone’s body through their nose, mouth and eyes.
Second, it has multiple mutations on its spike proteins (surface spikes) which means when it does get into your body it is better adapted to getting inside your cells and replicating.
Various estimates are stated that it is about 50%-75% more transmissible than the dominant strain that has been circulating for months. BUT these remain estimates and should be treated with caution. That does not mean prevention measures are ineffective, they are, if performed rigorously. (More detail below)
Does it make people more ill?
We do not have any clinical evidence yet to ascertain whether the impact on people infected is neutral, better or worse. Urgent studies are ongoing to establish if this new variant will follow the usual pattern that as these viruses become more transmissible they reduce in virulence. There are multiple lab studies underway exploring the properties of this strain, due to the lab processes early results are not expected until nearer the end of the month.
Does the vaccine still work?
Do the tests still work?
On testing, the main PCR methods still work for this strain. And test processes in labs, including in our hospitals labs locally are fine for this strain. Lateral Flow Tests also still work for this strain.