how dangerous is it, and could it hamper a vaccine?

how dangerous is it, and could it hamper a vaccine?

A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in England and Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed on Dec 14 that its numbers “are increasing rapidly”.

He told the Commons: “Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.

“We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the South of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.” 

In reaction to the spread of this new strain of the virus, the government implemented Tier 4 on Dec 20, the highest level of restrictions, and over 50 countries have banned any flights to or from Britain, including the Netherlands, India and Canada. 

This discovery came a week before the UK hit a new daily record of  infections on Dec 31, when Government statistics revealed 55,892 new lab-confirmed cases. A further 613 people have also died within 28 days of testing positive with the virus.

After the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Dec 30, the Government now faces a race to vaccinate millions in order to stop the spread of the new varient.

The vaccine will be rolled out from Jan 4 across the country, and mass vaccination centres at sports stadiums and conference venues are primed to launch in the second week of January.

The Government is aiming for two million people to receive their first dose of either the Oxford vaccine or the Pfizer jab within a fortnight as part of a major ramping up of the inoculation programme.

With news that the UK’s battle against coronavirus could be hampered by the appearance of this new strain of the disease, The Telegraph answers your questions. 

What is the mutation and how dangerous is it?

The variant – called ‘VUI – 202012/01’ –  carries a set of mutations including an N501Y mutation to part of the genetic sequence which forms the spike protein – little grippy rods which attach to human cells. Any change in shape of the spike protein could make it more difficult for the immune system to spot. The virus uses the spike protein to bind to the human ACE2 receptor.

Government scientists are studying it at laboratories in Porton Down but there is no evidence to suggest it is more likely to lead to serious illness. However if it can bind more easily to human cells, it may spread quicker and people could end up with a higher viral load .

Professor Lawrence Young, who is also a molecular oncology expert, said the new variant does “two things” which make it more transmissible.

The Warwick Medical School academic said: “One is it’s getting into the body more efficiently and it looks like that’s because this change (mutation) which has occurred in the spike protein increases the strength of the interaction of the virus with cells in our bodies – it increases the stickiness, if you like.

“There’s also data reported last week from Nervtag (The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) and it looks like where you do see this virus infection individuals are making more of it as well – there are higher virus loads in the throat.”

Scientists have said the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children and Prof Young added that preliminary research suggests this is also due to its “stickiness”.

He said children have less of the receptors which picked up the older coronavirus variant, meaning they were less likely to catch it, but the new variant “might compensate for lower levels of that receptor or that door to the virus in children by being stickier”.

However there is currently no evidence that this variant – or any other studied to date – has any impact on disease severity.

Prof Neil Ferguson, speaking at a Q&A with experts from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there is strong evidence the new mutant strain is 50 per cent more transmissible than the previous virus.

While Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Sage scientific advisory group, told Sky News that the new variant of Sars-Cov-2 could become the dominant global strain as it has an “evolutionary advantage in transmitting more quickly”.

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