New Covid-19 variant does spread more quickly, government confirms
The new variant of Covid-19 that is running rife in the South East of England is able to spread more quickly, the government has confirmed.
The chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty said: “As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England’s genomic surveillance.
“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.
“We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.
“There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this.
“Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.”
The Cambridge-led COG-UK consortium, led by the University of Cambridge’s Prof Sharon Peacock, and including the Wellcome Sanger Institute, is studying the variant as part of its ongoing genomic surveillance work.
Viruses naturally mutate as they are passed around.
Figures from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) - which features a number of Cambridge academics - showed the R number for the UK was estimated to have risen to between 1.1 and 1.2 – which means the disease is growing again.
It has led to the introduction of a new Tier 4 in areas of the South East, London and East, including Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and much of Essex, which is effectively a form of lockdown.
And it has meant the rules that would have allowed up to three households to meet over five days around Christmas have now been curtailed to cover Christmas Day only - and outside of Tier 4 areas.
Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said the prospects of a new year lockdown in England were on a “knife-edge”.
COG-UK explained: “Mutations arise naturally in the SARS-CoV-2 genome as the virus replicates and circulates in the human population. These accumulate at a rate of around one to two mutations per month in the global phylogeny. As a result of this ongoing process, many thousands of mutations have already arisen in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus emerged in 2019. As mutations continue to arise, novel combinations are increasingly observed.”
Particular attention is being paid by scientists to variants that impact the gene that encodes the virus spike protein, which is associated with viral entry into cells, such as the latest variant.