Super mutant coronavirus variants may emerge, expert warns

An expert has warned coronavirus is going to do ‘weird things’ and ‘super mutant viruses’ may emerge (Owen Humphreys/PA)
An expert has warned coronavirus is going to do ‘weird things’ and ‘super mutant viruses’ may emerge (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Coronavirus is going to do “weird” things and “super mutant viruses” may emerge, an expert has warned.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that while this would not necessarily be a bad thing, the virus would try to become more efficient at transmission as more people are protected.

He added that coronavirus is unpredictable and we should not be overconfident at any stage.

Asked about how to prepare for future variants, Prof Gupta told a press briefing: “I think we have good vaccines, now we need to keep the pressure on vaccine designers, manufacturers to adapt vaccines.”

He added: “Secondly, the virus is going to do some weird things. I mean, this is just the beginning.

“I think it's going to recombine, you're going to get super mutant viruses, I believe.

“That's not necessarily a terrible thing, but the virus is going to do very unexpected things because the amount of pressure on it is going to be severe, so it will adapt.

“We know that people still get chronic infections and that's how this all happens in general.

“It's hard to say what is going to happen, but the virus is going to find ways of becoming more infectious – you can see that already, when it's under pressure it will try and be more efficient in transmission so that it can achieve the job with fewer virus particles.”

Referring to some of the mutations seen in the variant first detected in India, the expert said they were “just the beginning” and that there would be further changes to the virus, not only for antibody escape but to increase transmissibility.

The Indian variant is highly transmissible, is spreading across the UK, and has become the dominant strain in some parts of the country.

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Prof Gupta said that as vaccine coverage increases, Covid-19 will be a mild illness for most of those who contract it, even with the “super variants”, but there will always be some vulnerable people.

He explained: “We see with flu, we have a lot of deaths each year from flu in vulnerable groups.

“We try to vaccinate them first to protect them, but it doesn't always work.

“But I don't think we should say it's going to be like flu automatically, I think this is an unpredictable virus and we shouldn't be overconfident at any stage.”

Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London and a member of the government's Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Group (SPI-M), told reporters the June relaxation of restrictions would depend on how transmissible the Indian variant is.

He said: “How much more transmissible it is will determine really whether any future third wave in the UK, for instance in the summer or early autumn, is manageable or risks overwhelming the health system again and therefore a reversal of the current UK roadmap entered lockdown.”

Prof Ferguson added: “I think it's actually too early to say whether we will be able to go ahead with what was planned in the UK in mid-June and the next step, basically a full relaxation of measures.

“Or whether that fourth stage of relaxation will need to be postponed or indeed, in the worst case, measures need to be tightened up.

“We're getting more and more data every week, but we hope to be in a position to be more definitive about these answers in the next two to three weeks.”

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Additional reporting by PA

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