'New variant' of coronavirus identified in UK, health secretary says

·4-min read

A "new variant" of coronavirus has been identified in the UK, which is believed to be causing the faster spread in the South East, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.

More than 1,000 cases of the new variant have been found, "predominantly in the south of England", Mr Hancock told the House of Commons this afternoon.

It is spreading faster than the existing strain of coronavirus and is believed to be fuelling the "very sharp, exponential rises" in cases across the South East, he said.

So far it has been found in 60 local authority areas and is thought to be similar to the mutation discovered in other countries in recent months.

It was first identified in Kent last week during routine surveillance by Public Health England (PHE), with ministers told about it on Friday.

The health secretary said that there is currently no evidence that the new variant will not respond to the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out across the country.

"I must stress at this point there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease," he told MPs.

"And the latest clinical advice is that it's highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine."

Speaking at a Downing Street news briefing later, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the new strain will still show up on tests and is not "more dangerous" than existing ones.

He said it is possible vaccine efficacy might be affected, but that would be "surprising".

Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, told Sky News he is "very confident that we won't have to refashion our vaccines" because of the new strain.

But he said the fast rate of the new spread could mean this variant becomes the most dominant nationwide.

"The best way to describe it is, imagine a giant oak tree, and then a little branch that breaks off from that tree. Then that branch becomes the main trunk and the main artery of that tree," he explained.

Mr Hancock said government scientists are studying the new variant at its Porton Down facility and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been informed.

WHO's top emergency expert Mike Ryan told a news briefing in Geneva it was aware of the new strain and said: "Authorities are looking at its significance. We have seen many variants, this virus evolves and changes over time."

The surge in cases in parts of the south of England saw the health secretary also announce that London, some of Hertfordshire and Essex will go into the toughest Tier 3 restrictions at midnight on Wednesday.

A decision on whether the capital and parts of the South East should move up a tier was due on Wednesday, but Mr Hancock said the surge in cases made it necessary to bring the changes forward.

He told the Commons experts don't yet know how far the increases are down to the new variant, but added: "No matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.

"In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days."

Analysis: New strain makes another surge more likely in the New Year
By Thomas Moore, science correspondent

The virus that causes COVID-19 has been mutating every couple of weeks. It's so regular that it has allowed scientists to track the spread of the infection around the world.

Almost all of the mutations have no consequence for the disease whatsoever.

But occasionally a mutation does alter the properties of the virus.

Many of the mutations are in the genetic information for the spike protein, which coats the surface of the virus and latches on to the ACE2 receptors of human cells.

The right mutation can cause tighter binding and help the virus invade.

But that doesn't mean it is necessarily a more virulent virus, causing more serious disease. If anything, as viruses with animal origins adapt to life in the human body they gradually cause milder symptoms.

Some scientists have suggested that other coronaviruses that now cause the common cold in humans would once have caused serious illnesses, but they have weakened over millennia.

The bigger concern is whether this new strain is resistant to the vaccine.

The jabs are based on the genetic blueprint that codes for the spike protein. If the virus has mutated, changing that information, then there is a chance that the vaccine will be less effective.

It's not inevitable though and the health secretary has said that it is "highly unlikely" to be the case with this variant. Tests are being carried out at Porton Down to confirm this.

What the strain does do is make another surge in the New Year more likely. Rolling out the vaccine to vulnerable people needs to be done as fast as possible.