British scientists are trying to figure out whether the rapid spread of a new variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 in southern England is related to key mutations they discovered in the strain, they said Tuesday.
The mutations include changes to the important “spike” protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells, said a group of scientists tracking the genetics of the virus, but it’s not yet clear whether these make it more infectious.
“Efforts are being made to confirm whether or not any of these mutations contribute to increased transmission,” scientists from the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium said in a statement.
The new variant, which British scientists have dubbed “VUI – 202012/01”, contains a genetic mutation in the “Spike” protein that could theoretically make Covid-19 more easily spread between people.
The UK government spearheaded a surge in new infections on Monday, which may be partially related to the new variant as it has moved its capital and many other areas to the highest level of Covid-19 restrictions.
As of December 13, 1,108 Covid-19 cases were identified with the new variant, mostly in the south and east of England, Public Health England said in a statement.
However, there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe Covid-19 infections, the scientists say, or that it would affect the effectiveness of vaccines.
“Both questions require further study, which is being done at pace,” said the COG-UK scientists.
Mutations, or genetic changes, occur naturally in all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, as they replicate and circulate in human populations.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these mutations accumulate worldwide at a rate of around one to two mutations per month, according to the genetics specialists at COG-UK.
“As a result of this ongoing process, many thousands of mutations have appeared in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus appeared in 2019,” they said.
The majority of the mutations seen to date have had no apparent effects on the virus, and only a minority are likely to change the virus in significant ways – for example, to better infect people and be more likely to cause serious illness. or less sensitive to natural or vaccine-induced immune defense mechanisms.
Susan Hopkins, a medical advisor to PHE, said it was “not unexpected that the virus should develop, and it is important that we identify changes quickly to understand the potential risk.”
She said the new variant “will be discovered in a wide geographic area, especially where cases are being discovered more frequently.”
(This story was posted from a wire agency feed with no text changes. Only the headline was changed.)
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