A new strain of Coronavirus has been identified in the United Kingdom (UK) in December 2020 as announced by the country’s health secretary. The virus is being referred to as VUI-202012/01 (the first ‘variant under investigation’ in December 2020) and is characterised by a set of 17 mutations.
What do we know so far?
The mutated variant of the Coronavirus demonstrates features which include:
- Mutation in the spike protein which Coronaviruses use to attach to the ACE2 receptor cells in humans.
- This mutated spike protein may lead to its fast transmission among people.
- There is no evidence yet on whether this variant would cause severe illness.
- The variant is predicted to be 70% more transmissible than the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19).
What is the origin of the virus?
As this variant of the Coronavirus is highly-mutated, the most plausible justification given by scientists is that the virus would have mutated in the body of a patient with a weak immune system. Scientists are also of the opinion that the mutation of the virus would have taken place in the UK as there is no data to indicate its import from abroad.
How fast is it spreading?
The mutant strain seems to have spread rapidly in the South East of England and London where the infections accounted for 62% of the total infections. Scotland and Wales also reported few incidents. Also, the virus seems to have exported itself and infected people in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Australia.
Can this virus be tested in the same way as COVID-19?
PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests are currently being used to detect COVID-19 infections. Experts recommend that these tests be used to test this new variant of Coronavirus until more research is conducted. PCR tests have the ability to detect viral proteins or genetic material which includes the spike proteins. Mutation in the spike protein can affect the test partly but the risk of false results is minimal.
Has this kind of mutation happened before?
Mutations in viruses, including Coronaviruses, are quite normal. The dominant form of the SARS-CoV-2 which has affected many across the globe is not the same one that was initially detected in Wuhan, China but a different one – D614G mutant. Similarly, the variant which affected Europe was another mutant known as A222V.
What is there to worry?
The new strain of Coronavirus is said to be more contagious as the mutation is of the spike protein, an important factor for virus transmission. And if what the scientists are predicting about the new virus being 70% more transmissible comes true, the risk of it spreading quickly in Britain and to other countries will become multi-fold. This could result in increased hospitalization rates.
Will COVID-19 vaccines be effective against this new variant?
All the three COVID-19 vaccine frontrunners - developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and the University of Oxford, target many areas in the spike protein of the Coronavirus. So although this new variant has a mutated spike protein, the chances of it being less effective are very low. However, in future, the vaccines may have to undergo a few alterations if more mutations occur.
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