Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock told politicians Monday that a “new variant” of Covid-19 had been discovered in England where it had infected over a 1,000 people in the south of the country where cases have been rising dramatically, leading many to question whether the new mutant strain is capable of spreading more easily, causing worse symptoms or potentially rendering the new vaccines ineffective.
- Hancock said it was unclear to what extent outbreaks in the south of England, which have been put under new lockdown restrictions because of a surge in cases, were caused by the new strain or whether the mutations had led to a change in the virus’ behavior.
- He said there was “nothing to suggest” that the mutant would cause more serious disease, though he did say that the mutation is linked to the virus’ spike protein, which is instrumental in allowing it to reproduce and spread and is the target of many leading vaccines currently in development, including the Pfizer-BioNTech one currently being rolled out in the U.K. and the U.S..
- Hancock said the World Health Organization had been notified and British scientists were conducting in-depth studies.
- The Health Secretary did not provide the necessary evidence needed to back these claims, however, which Dr. Lucy van Dorp, a researcher at University College London’s Genetics Institute, described as “frustrating” for scientists when trying to evaluate the threat.
- Professor Martin Hibberd, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said it is “too early to say how important” the new variant is yet, adding that it could be the “result of chance events” as well as a “more transmissible” strain.
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said that consequences of new mutations are “potentially serious.” Farrar emphasized that there is a great deal left to learn about Covid-19, noting that “there is no room for complacency. We have to remain humble and be prepared to adapt and respond to new and continued challenges as we move into 2021.” Farrar added that there are still surprises in store for the coming year.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
As Hibberd said, it’s too early to tell whether this new strain of virus represents a threat or not. Mutations are common and expected in viruses, especially ones that are moving around a new species like Covid-19. That it is found in areas seeing a rapid rise in cases seems, on face, alarming, but it’s too early to tell whether or not there is a causal link between the two events. Further research and observation will be needed to track and understand new strains.
Understanding the genetic makeup of Covid-19 is crucial in designing and implementing an effective pandemic response. Mutations could, for instance, increase the virus’ death rate, boost its transmission or, potentially, help it evade a vaccine and it’s a simple fact of life that viruses will mutate and change over time, especially when pushed to do so by the human immune system and the introduction of new vaccines. Indeed, it is unsurprising that we are seeing new strains emerge. Dr. Zania Stamataki, a viral immunologist at the University of Birmingham in England, said that “the emergence of different coronavirus strains a year after SARS-CoV-2 first jumped to humans is neither cause for panic nor unexpected.” However, that does not mean mutations will always be benign, and careful monitoring will be required. That the U.K. has been able to detect changes so quickly is a good sign should a mutant turn out to be dangerous, putting the country in a good place to respond. The discovery of a new mutant strain in Denmark, linked to mink farms, raised precisely these kinds of worries, and the Danish prime minister ordered the culling of the country’s entire 17-million-strong herd in order to contain the threat. While the strain, believed to threaten the effectiveness of vaccines currently in development, is now thought to be extinct, the World Health Organization is investigating mink farms for their role in spreading the disease.