This year has felt like one blow after another and now, with a new variant of Covid-19 in the UK, the prospect of kicking off 2021 with major gains made against the virus is getting further out of reach.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson explained that the new Covid-19 variant was the reason behind the huge spike in cases in the UK, in a statement from Downing Street.
It came at the same time that the government was introducing new measures to restrict the spread of Covid-19, after cases rose by 64,581 in just a matter of days across the whole of the UK. These included the introduction of new Tier 4 restrictions and a complete overhaul of the Christmas lockdown rules for many parts of the UK.
As the prime minister said in his statement, we are learning more about the new variant of the virus everyday, however, it’s been considered damaging enough that countries in Europe have already acted to prevent the UK spreading the virus overseas.
This is what we know so far and what the experts have to say about it…
What is the new Covid-19 variant?
A variant (otherwise called a ‘strain’) is a mutated form of a virus. It happens when multiple changes are made in the spike protein, an important part of the virus that binds to the receptor on the cells inside our bodies. This is also the main area for antibodies to attach to, when they are produced either during the infection or after a vaccine.
Simply put in the case of the new Covid-19 variant, it’s thought that the virus has evolved to make itself more challenging for the human immune system to fight off.
However, evidence uncovered by the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and confirmed by Public Health England (PHE), has suggested that the new variant is not more harmful than the standard Covid-19 virus and it’s not resistant to the Pfizer vaccine that is currently being distributed in the UK.
It does transmit significantly faster though. As Boris Johnson said in his statement on December 19, “NERVTAG’s early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R by 0.4 or greater.
“Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also described the recent rise in cases as ‘worrying’ and said that without immediate action, the NHS risks being overwhelmed.
A statement from PHE clarifies that that the increased chance of transmission doesn’t mean the virus spreads any differently, however.
“The way to control this virus is the same, whatever the variant.” The statement reads, “It will not spread if we avoid close contact with others. Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance from others, and reduce your social contacts.”
This means that while we’re not totally in the know about the new variant, government health bodies have advised that caution is needed since the virus is spreading faster than previously.
However, it’s important to note that mutations in viruses are completely normal. The Covid-19 virus has a mutation rate of less than 25 a year, while the seasonal flu (of which we have a flu vaccine) mutates at double that.
What is the South Africa variant?
In South Africa, another variant of coronavirus was widely reported at the end of last year, called the 501.v2 variant.
The 501.v2 variant is not the same as the variant first discovered in the UK. It’s been identified as a new strain by scientists in South Africa.
As confirmed by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, “It is definitely not the same variant [as the UK one], but there are similarities as they both share the same change in the spike protein at the 501 position. What it does tell us is that if we do not control the spread of the virus then it is likely to evolve in similar ways in different parts of the world.”
The institute has also confirmed that while they don’t know whether this new strain is more severe than others, it does spread in the same way.
In response to the outbreak, South Africa was put into lockdown in late December by the president as it was admitted that the variant was “more contagious” than the original virus, which circulated around the world during the first wave.
As of December 23, there were two cases of the South African strain in the UK. The cases and their contacts were quickly identified and quarantined, with the Government placing strict restrictions on travel from South Africa.
Is there a vaccine for the South Africa variant?
A leading expert in the Oxford vaccine team has suggested that the coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa could be resistant to the current vaccines being rolled out around the world. However, it would only take six weeks to create a new jab if it was required.
Regius professor at the University of Oxford, Sir John Bell, said that his “gut feeling” was that the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines would work against the strain discovered in the UK and first identified in Kent. But he had concerns about the other variant, “I don’t know about the South African strain – I think that’s a big question mark.” He said.
Is the new Covid-19 variant only in the UK?
The variant currently spreading across the UK (not the same as 501.v2), hasn’t only been found in this country.
Initial findings from the government’s medical bodies discovered that the new variant was responsible for the big surge in cases around London, the south and south east of England over December. However, it’s also the reason for the change in Christmas plans for Scotland.
Other countries in Europe also have cases of the new variant, however according to some experts, it’s likely that these cases emerged following transmission from the UK. In the coming days, the UK’s quarantine list is expected to change dramatically and become unrecognisable from the one we first saw in July.
We can also expect that the list of places to go on holiday without quarantining on arrival will be dramatically reduced, as more countries close their borders to UK residents.
Which other countries have the new Covid-19 variant?
Nextstrain, an organisation who has been monitoring genetic codes of the virus worldwide, has released data to suggest that cases of the new virus strain in Denmark, The Netherlands and Australia have come from the new variant.
In the UK, we know that the variant has spread from the south and south east, where it was first discovered, to Scotland and Wales. It hasn’t yet reached Northern Ireland.
Which countries are banning flights from the UK?
An ever-rising number of countries are now banning flights out of the UK, putting travel plans on pause for potentially thousands of people over the coming days.
These are the countries not accepting flights from the UK….
- El Salvador
- Hong Kong
This is ultimately to prevent the new Covid-19 strain from entering and infecting other countries. Some only joined the list at the last minute, following information which is constantly incoming from various health authorities over Europe.
Now, the Dover port in England is also not allowing UK goods to leave the country, nor allowing anything to enter. Totally apart from recent Brexit negotiations, it’s thought that this is the reason food shortages have been predicted by supermarkets this week.
Sainsbury’s have already warned that lettuce, salad leaves and cauliflowers are potentially going to be in short supply if trade links are not restored soon. However, they have urged people not to panic buy as they have “plenty” of products on the shelves.
Will the vaccine work on the new variant of Covid-19?
There is currently no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer or Oxford vaccine, currently either being distributed or in production in the UK, will not be able to protect vaccinated people against coronavirus.
However with so little known about the new mutation, experts are guaranteed to have more information on the issue in the coming days or weeks.
Where did the new variant come from?
Emerging from around London, the south and south east of England, it’s thought that the virus could have come from one individual who was chronically infected with Covid-19.
Professor Paul Hunter is a professor of medicine at The Norwich School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia. He explains, “The suggestion that the variant arose in a chronically infected individual is plausible but unless we have sequences from that individual it would be difficult to prove.
“It is known that viral variants are more likely to arise in people who are chronically infected, though the evidence for this primarily comes from those viruses that routinely cause chronic infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B.
“Indeed in these infections the generation of what are known as immune escape mutants are an important part of how the virus may cause continuing disease. We do know that in immunocompromised patients SARS-CoV-2 can shed COVID for quite a long time, but so can immunocompetent patients.
“Nevertheless mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.”
This means that the new variant was likely to come from someone whose immune system was suppressed and so not able to function effectively and fight off the virus.
“But, we may not be able to provide this for certain,” Professor Hunter adds.
What are the symptoms of the new variant?
It’s thought that the new variant of Covid-19 displays exactly the same symptoms as the standard variation of Covid-19 which has been spreading widely in the UK over the last year.
It shows up in coronavirus tests just the same, is spread in exactly the same way and people can protect themselves against it using exactly the same methods.
However it is more transmissible, so it’s more likely to slink through any chink in the armour of our anti-bacterial defences. This means that it’s more important than ever to ensure that solid social distancing is maintained, thorough hand washing is carried out and masks are worn in all densely populated areas where social distancing can’t be maintained.