Viruses mutate all the time, writes Professor HUGH PENNINGTON


There’s no need to panic! A new variant of coronavirus sounds scary, but viruses mutate all the time, writes Professor HUGH PENNINGTON

The phrase ‘new variant of coronavirus associated with faster spread’, uttered in sombre tones by Matt Hancock in the Commons yesterday, conjures up terrors of some hitherto unseen mutant pathogen scything through the civilian population: a new plague altogether.

In fact, the reality is much more prosaic. The simple fact is that all viruses mutate.

It is a normal occurrence, happening all the time, and is not something to be particularly alarmed about.

The phrase ‘new variant of coronavirus associated with faster spread’, uttered in sombre tones by Matt Hancock (pictured)

Infection rate data for December 8 shows that the worst affected areas of England are now mostly confined to the East, South East and London

Infection rate data for December 8 shows that the worst affected areas of England are now mostly confined to the East, South East and London

The flu virus does so more readily than Covid, which is why scientists develop a new vaccine against it every year.

There is nothing in itself alarming about a virus mutating: in the vast majority of cases, this makes little difference to how much disease it causes or how fast it spreads.

A lot of the mutations are down to faults in the ‘proof-reading’ operation when the DNA or RNA multiplies or replicates.

A rise in infections means London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be put under Tier Three curbs

A rise in infections means London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be put under Tier Three curbs

Mr Hancock chose his language carefully. He did not say the ‘new variant’ was ‘causing’ the spike in cases in London, he said it is merely ‘associated’ with it – not at all the same thing. Pictured: Shoppers in Regent Street, London

Mr Hancock chose his language carefully. He did not say the ‘new variant’ was ‘causing’ the spike in cases in London, he said it is merely ‘associated’ with it – not at all the same thing. Pictured: Shoppers in Regent Street, London 

Some viruses mutate more than others. The Covid virus is one which has fewer mutations but they still happen.

If I were to be unkind to our Health Secretary, I would accuse him of having launched a new ‘Project Fear’ yesterday to justify a further tightening of restrictions – and to buttress the new ‘lockdown’ of London as it is placed under Tier Three restrictions.

The lamentable failings of contact tracing and other measures are coming back to haunt us in a serious second wave.

The lamentable failings of contact tracing and other measures are coming back to haunt us in a serious second wave. Pictured: London infection rates by borough week to December 6

The lamentable failings of contact tracing and other measures are coming back to haunt us in a serious second wave. Pictured: London infection rates by borough week to December 6

Hence Mr Hancock’s overblown rhetoric that a new mutated form of Covid was stalking London and the Home Counties, driving exponential rises in transmission. The truth is that the virus that surfaced in London in the spring is, in many minor respects, genetically different from the one now making such an unwelcome return.

But both have largely the same basic genetic sequence, or what might be called the virus’s ‘fingerprint’ – and both cause comparable levels of disease.

Mr Hancock chose his language carefully. He did not say the ‘new variant’ was ‘causing’ the spike in cases in London, he said it is merely ‘associated’ with it – not at all the same thing. 

Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University, Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University, Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

Moreover, he went on: ‘There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease … and it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.’

Quite. No need to panic. But Mr Hancock perhaps showed the true purpose of his statement when he added: ‘It shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules.’

The Government’s priorities are all wrong. Covid-19, whatever its variant, does not kill indiscriminately. Rather, it cruelly targets the elderly and the weak, and we have learnt a great deal about how to protect and treat them better.

Mr Hancock (pictured) perhaps showed the true purpose of his statement when he added: ‘It shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules’

Mr Hancock (pictured) perhaps showed the true purpose of his statement when he added: ‘It shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules’

We have also learned the hard way that the main means of transmission is within the home, particularly multi-generational homes. 

This lay behind the rapid spikes in England’s northern towns earlier in the year – and it has lessons for all of us mixing together at Christmas. Mr Hancock might have focused on that, instead of resorting to irresponsible scaremongering.

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