The new coronavirus strain, dubbed VUI-202012/01 (first variant under investigation in December 2020), recently spotted in the UK is said to be 70 per cent more infectious and the variant “was out of control”, said the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
The new variant was first detected in September. In November it made up around a quarter of cases in London. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.
The new strain was picked up by the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which undertakes random genetic sequencing of positive coronavirus samples around the UK. The consortium is a partnership of the UK’s four public health agencies, as well as the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.
The strain is a derivative of the D614G mutation, which appeared independently in multiple locations. The new variant contains 23 genetic changes, several due to alterations in a protein made by the virus.
“This is a surprisingly large number of mutations and more than we would expect,” remarked Prof. Nick Loman from the COG-UK Consortium,
A new variant also appeared independently in South Africa, carrying one of the mutations found in the UK strain. It has since been identified in Italy as well as Denmark and Australia.
In both the variants from the UK and South Africa, two notable mutations have been found in the crucial spike protein that allows the virus to enter human cells and hijack them. These are the mutation N501Y, where the amino acid N mutates to Y at the 501st position in the sequence, and the H69/V70 deletion, where two amino acids in the spike protein are deleted.
The 69-70 deletion was previously found in the now-culled Danish minks and was also seen in an immune-suppressed patient who became resistant to convalescent plasma. Viruses are known to mutate vigorously in immunocompromised patients with prolonged illnesses.
The deletion arose independently in Thailand and Germany earlier this year as well. The N501Y mutation was first observed in Brazil in April but remained at low frequency until now. Virologists are still investigating the possibilities of other mutations in the two strains now in the UK and South Africa, which could affect transmissibility.
Dr Ravi Gupta, professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, and other researchers have posted a preliminary report about developments on the new variant, but this is yet to be peer-reviewed.
The virus has spread quickly in London and south-east England, but health officials say there is no evidence that it is more deadly or would react differently to vaccines.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK, told the Science Media Centre briefing: “With this variant, there is no evidence that it will evade the vaccination or human immune response. But if there is an instance of vaccine failure or reinfection then that case should be treated as a high priority for genetic sequencing.”
Since the announcement that the new strain of coronavirus spreading in the country has been spreading rapidly, several nations have started to close their borders with the country.
India is the latest state to suspend flights from the UK, joining Hong Kong, Canada, Switzerland and Germany. Belgium and the Irish Republic have also suspended flights. India will halt flights from Tuesday evening until the evening of 31 December.
Austria is also set to bring in a ban, while Bulgaria has suspended flights to and from the UK from midnight. Unlike the short-term measures in many other nations, its ban lasts until 31 January.
Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended all international passenger flights for citizens and residents over fears about the fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus.
On Sunday evening, France shut its border with the UK for 48 hours. However, the French government has said that the country will soon establish a protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume.
“In the next few hours, at European level, we’re going to establish a solid health protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume,” said the post shared on twitter by the French Embassy in the UK, French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari.
European Union member states are due to meet in Brussels later to discuss a co-ordinated response.
Over the last one week, the number of cases in London doubled, with at least 60 percent of the infections being from this strain. While the variant is found across the UK, it is heavily concentrated in London and South East England. Coronavirus cases in the UK rose by 35,928 on Sunday – nearly double the number recorded seven days previously. It was announced that a further 326 people died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the nation’s total to 67,401.