Watch: Health secretary announces discovery of new Covid variant
A new variant of the coronavirus has been detected and is spreading rapidly in parts of England, Matt Hancock has told MPs.
The health secretary announced at least 60 local authorities have picked up on a collective 1,000-plus infections caused by the variant, which has been reported to the World Health Organization.
Hancock reassured there is “nothing to suggest” the variant causes more severe coronavirus complications or is resistant to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is being administered to the most vulnerable individuals ahead of a national roll-out.
Nevertheless, scientists are said to be studying the variant to uncover whether its genetic mutations could have any implications in how the coronavirus outbreak plays out.
Experts have stressed viruses can change “very rapidly”, with one adding it is critical to “keep a calm and rational perspective”.
Watch: How concerning are coronavirus mutations?
‘We expect new variants to come and go’
The coronavirus is an RNA virus, which mutate almost constantly. In simple terms, RNA is a precursor to the more well known DNA.
That being said, the coronavirus is said to change at a relatively low rate compared to other RNA viruses, like HIV.
Most mutations are neutral, while others can be advantageous or detrimental to the virus.
Neutral and advantageous mutations can become more common as they pass to descendant viruses. Detrimental mutations tend not to “stick”; think survival of the fittest.
“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,” said Professor Jonathan Ball from the University of Nottingham.
“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.”
An RNA virus can develop mutations by mistake if it copies an error while replicating. It can also interact with another virus infecting the same cell, picking up its mutations.
Genetic changes can also come about as a result of the patient’s immune response against the virus.
“It is important we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves,” said Professor Ball.
“Until we have done that important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.”
Professor Alan McNally from the University of Birmingham agreed, adding: “Hopefully the narrative here is how amazing our surveillance has been at picking this up.
“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.”
Hancock stressed it is unclear whether the variant is behind rising coronavirus cases in London and some of its surrounding areas, which have been put into tier three.
Nevertheless, the experts agreed further research is required.
“[The coronavirus] is an RNA virus and mutations are expected to occur as it replicates,” said Professor Wendy Barclay from Imperial College London.
“This variant contains some mutations in [its] spike protein that is the major target of vaccines and it will be important to establish whether they impact vaccine efficacy by performing experiments in the coming weeks.”
The coronavirus uses its spike protein to infect cells.
In November, scientists from University College London reported there is no evidence any of the coronavirus’ common mutations are increasing its potential to spread, with most having a neutral effect.
Virus mutations ‘like showers with springtime’
This is not the first time coronavirus mutations have been discussed.
In March, scientists from Peking University in Beijing claimed two major types of the coronavirus had evolved, with the more “aggressive” strain being the most widespread.
A team from the University of Glasgow then “examined in detail” the data presented by the Beijing scientists, concluding it “cannot be substantiated”.
Writing on Twitter, Professor Andrew Rambaut from the University of Edinburgh said genetic variations are “entirely expected”.
He added it is a “flawed inference” to suggest the mutations could make the virus behave differently.
Some have argued the virus does not need to evolve to become more transmissible, with tens of millions already confirmed to have been infected worldwide.
“At our cost the virus is doing well enough colonising the human population,” Professor Ian Jones from the University of Reading previously said.
Dr William Hanage from Harvard added: “Essentially the virus has been mutating. That don’t mean that much.
“Mutations are what happens when genomes replicate.
“Comes with the territory, like showers with the springtime.”
Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?