By now, a year into the pandemic, we're all pretty much fluent in COVID-speak (R-rate, viral load, social distancing etc), and we can also probably name the key symptoms of the virus quicker than we can do the alphabet. A cough, fever, and loss of smell and/or taste have long been identified as the most common indicators of coronavirus, and if anyone notices the onset of any of them, they're advised to self-isolate.
But does the spread of a new variant of COVID - which picked up pace towards the end of last year in Kent, London and the south-east of England - have different symptoms? There have probably been lots of people wondering whether this slightly altered strain of COVID-19 displays the same signs as the original version, and a new study by the Office for National Statistics goes some way to give answer.
The data suggests that loss of smell/taste is less common in the new variant of COVID (but not non-existent), while the following symptoms all appear to be more common in the new variant:
Here's how the research was carried out: When you're tested for COVID-19, the test is looking for at least one of three genes present in your swab - the N protein, the S protein and ORF1ab. If one or more of these genes are detected, you're deemed to have coronavirus. But if there's no S-gene present in your positive test, it's more likely that you have the new variant as opposed to the original strain of COVID.
Based on that knowledge, scientists have been able to determine roughly what percentage of coronavirus cases are the new variant. The ONS researchers surveyed people who had positive COVID tests - both the original version and the new variant - between November 15, 2020 and January 16, 2021, and asked them about the symptoms they had experienced. They could then compare symptom patterns between the original version and the new strain, and draw any possible distinctions between the two. Still with me?
What they ultimately concluded was that "people testing positive compatible with the new UK variant were more likely to report... the classic symptoms, but were less likely to report loss of taste and smell. There was no evidence of difference in the percentages reporting gastrointestinal symptoms."
So there you have it; there's still a large overlap in symptoms between the original coronavirus strain and the UK mutation we've seen spreading in recent months, but there are some slight differences in how it might manifest. And ultimately, the bottom line remains the same. If you have any of the key symptoms - that's a cough, fever, or loss of taste/smell - make sure you self-isolate and book in for a test. The more we do this, the less it will spread!
The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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