Story at a glance

  • A variant first identified in the U.K. in September now makes up 60 percent of cases in London.
  • The variant has not been found in the U.S., but a handful of cases have been reported in other countries.
  • Experts do not yet know if this variant is more transmissible.

There is a variant of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, that experts are concerned about. Currently, it’s spreading in the U.K., where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has enacted new restrictions in response, including asking people to stay home in some regions. Other countries in Europe, including France and Germany, have suspended flights from the U.K.

The newly identified variant has a few mutations when compared to earlier strains of the virus. Mutations occur naturally and do not indicate that the virus is becoming stronger or worse.

However, experts are concerned that there may be evidence that this variant may be more transmissible. In a meeting on Dec. 8, U.K. specialists noticed that half of the cases were caused by one specific variant, according to Science. The news of stricter stay-at-home orders led to a mass exodus from London and packed railway stations.

The variant first appeared in the U.K. in September and was linked to about 26 percent of cases in November, said Chief Science Adviser Patrick Vallance in a press conference, according to Science. By Dec. 9, it was linked to 60 percent of cases in London, he continued. Experts were able to track the various versions of the coronavirus passed throughout the community because they are sequencing and heavily surveilling due to the pandemic. 

“There’s a chance that the antibodies that were made in the first infection won’t work as well against the new variant,” says Wendy Barclay, who is the head of infectious diseases at Imperial College London, in a briefing according to STAT.

That’s because of where it has mutated. Some of the mutations are in the stretch of the genetic material that codes for the spike protein. The spike protein is like a key to get into cells and is one of the ways that the immune system can identify the virus.


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Vallance and Johnson have mentioned that the new variant may be 70 percent more transmissible, but that may only be a first attempt at an estimate.

“It is really too early to tell… but from what we see so far it is growing very quickly, it is growing faster than [a previous variant] ever grew, but it is important to keep an eye on this," says Erik Volz from Imperial College London in a lecture, according to the BBC. Other scientists whose work is not yet public have told the BBC reporter numbers that are “both much higher and much lower than 70%.”

Increased transmissibility might mean that, on average, one infected person will infect more additional people. This could be due to many factors, such as how well the virus survives or how quickly it can reproduce in the body so that the infected person sheds more virus. Researchers will have to study this variant more closely to find out about how it might be different from past variants.


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The U.K.’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group says in a report that “there are currently insufficient data to draw any conclusion” on the underlying mechanism for increased transmissibility. The scientists in the group also note that more work is needed to determine if reinfection of this variant is possible because of changes to the spike protein.

There are studies underway in the U.K. to understand if the existing Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective against this variant. The variant has not been found in the U.S. However, there are reports of cases of people who traveled from the U.K. to Australia, as well as cases in Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. And, so far, experts don’t think the variant’s mutations make the illness any worse.

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Dec 22, 2020