A mutated strain of coronavirus may be behind the rapid surge in infections in London and the South East of England, Matt Hancock claimed today.
UK experts have so far found more than 1,000 people carrying the variant, called VUI – 202012/01, the Health Secretary told the House of Commons.
There have been reports of the strain in at least 60 local authority areas and it is believed to be similar to other strains in Europe, he claimed.
VUI – 202012/01 was picked up in Kent last week during routine testing by Public Health England (PHE) and ministers were alerted to its existence on Friday.
PHE scientists are studying the strain at a Government laboratory in Porton Down to see if it behaves differently to the normal version of the virus.
No information has been publicly announced about the strain and it does not appear to exist in scientific studies, nor to be linked to any of the other mutations that have been found in Europe.
Other versions of coronavirus have been found throughout the year and experts say it is totally normal for the virus to change as it spreads, and is not cause for alarm. Variants called D614G and 20A.EU1 have both been found to be widespread and faster to spread than original versions that came out of East Asia, but not more deadly.
Matt Hancock said there is no evidence to suggest this mutation is a bad thing – immunity from vaccines should still work on it, he said – but that scientists would study it in detail.
Independent scientists said it was ‘too early’ for anyone to be worried about it.
A mutated strain of coronavirus may be the culprit behind a rapid surge in infections in London and the South East of England, Matt Hancock suggested today (file)
Mr Hancock told MPs today: ‘Over the last few days, thanks to our world class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the South East of England.
‘Initial analysis suggests this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We have currently identified over 1,000 cases of this variant, predominantly in the South of England.
‘Although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months.
‘We’ve notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) about this new variant and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE NEW STRAIN?
Experts have so far identified more than 1,000 confirmed cases in Britain;
There have been reports of the strain in at least 60 local authority areas in England;
It has been named VUI 202012/01 – which stands for ‘Variant Under Investigation in December 2020’;
It was picked up in Kent last week during routine testing by Public Health England (PHE);
Ministers were alerted to its existence on Friday;
The strain is believed to be similar to ultra-infectious variants racing through Europe;
PHE scientists are studying the mutant strain at a Government laboratory in Porton Down;
There is ‘currently nothing to suggest’ the strain is more deadly or likely to cause serious symptoms than other versions of the virus;
‘Highly unlikely’ to be resistant to vaccines.
‘I must stress at this point there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant more likely to cause serious disease.
‘And the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine. But it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules.
‘And everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.’
Experts will seek to find out if VUI – 202012/01 is more infectious or deadly, or if it will have any impact on Pfizer’s vaccine. It normally takes about two weeks to get the results.
But Mr Hancock said there was ‘currently nothing to suggest’ the strain is more potent or causes more severe symptoms, adding that it is also ‘highly unlikely’ to be resistant to vaccines.
So far little is known about VUI 202012/01 – which stands for Variant Under Investigation in December 2020 – or where it originated.
All viruses naturally mutate as they spread through populations and the changes normally make minimal difference in the way they behave in humans.
Many pathogens evolve in order to become more infectious, which often makes them less deadly so they can survive for longer and be spread to more people.
A spokesperson for the WHO told MailOnline: ‘We are aware of this variant coming from UK, which has been reported to us by the national authorities and we understand that they are looking at it.
‘It is normal for viruses to change. Most changes have little to no impact on the virus’ properties.
‘However, depending on where the changes are located in the virus genetic material, and how these changes affect the virus’ shape or properties, some could potentially impact how it behaves and spreads.
‘If a virus changes so much that it is different from the one that vaccines are designed to combat, or tests to recognize, it may influence how well vaccines and diagnostic tests work.
‘WHO, along with its network of experts, is monitoring changes to the virus so that if such a situation arises, measures can be taken to prevent the spread of that variant.
‘So far, the SARS-CoV-2 has changed very little having no impact on available diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines that are in development.’
Reacting to the findings, Professor Jonathan Ball, a molecular virologist at the University of Nottingham, said: ‘The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect at all.
‘Even though a new genetic variant of the virus has emerged and is spreading in many parts of the UK and across the world, this can happen purely by chance.
‘Therefore, it is important that we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves, and until we have done that important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.’
Professor Alan McNally, an expert in microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, added: ‘Over the past few weeks a few of the UK PCR testing labs have picked up on this new variant.
‘Supported by The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium and rapid genomics it has been identified incredibly quickly.
‘Hopefully the narrative here is how amazing our surveillance has been at picking this up. Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence.
‘It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time.
‘It’s too early to be worried or not by this new variant, but I am in awe of the surveillance efforts in the UK that allowed this to be picked up so fast.’
The sole purpose of the virus is to replicate as many times as possible. Tiny changes in its DNA occur every time it spreads between people as it tries to enable greater growth, transmissibility or escape from the immune system.
But most of the changes have little to no effect and only rarely does a mutation occur that actually accomplishes one of these goals. This is a process than can take years, if not decades, with most viruses.
But some, such as the flu, mutate much quicker, which is why a different flu jab is created every year to protect millions of people against different strains.
Experts are still uncertain how quickly SARS-CoV-2 mutates, but the consensus has been that this process is slower than flu, as is the case with other seasonal coronaviruses.
Another mutation in Sars-Cov-2, called D614G, was identified over summer and is still thriving in Europe, the US and parts of Asia.
It is believed to make the virus more infectious but less deadly, which researchers believed was behind low hospital and death rates during the warmer months.
Another strain, called 20A.EU1, is thought to have been behind Europe’s second wave of the epidemic. Since July, 20A.EU1 has been identified in twelve European countries – including Belgium, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Norway and the Netherlands.
It has also been transmitted from Europe to major cities in other continents, such as Hong Kong and New Zealand.
Experts tracked 20A.EU1 back to a farm in northern Spain in June and believe it raced through the continent as holidaymakers returned over summer, when there was a lull in transmission and lockdowns were eased.
The researchers believe that the variant was able to move so rapidly due to the timing of travel restrictions and social distancing measures being loosened in summer.
But it’s also though 20A.EU1 has a particular mutation in the spike protein Sars-CoV-2 uses to invade human cells which may make this process easier.
A different strain — called Cluster 5 — that emerged in mink over autumn was feared to make vaccines less potent after it was found to be resistant to antibodies,
It was feared Cluster 5 would be able to slip past promising new Covid-19 vaccines, which work by stimulating an antibody response.
Officials locked down swathes of northern Denmark where the strain originated and ordered the culling of 17million mink to stomp out the variant before it became widespread.