The new strain of coronavirus that Matt Hancock discovered yesterday has spread to Scotland and Wales after it emerged in England, scientists say.
Members of the British Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) announced today that the variant apparently originated in England and then spread across the UK.
And it was warned that it appears to be spreading faster than the dominant strain, which was imported by vacationers from Spain in the summer and which now accounts for the majority of infections.
The health minister announced the existence of the tribe yesterday and said it was linked to an explosion of cases in London and the southeast.
Experts who examined the variant of the virus today said there was no clear evidence that this version could spread faster, but that it was gaining weight far faster than any other strain in the country they are "concerned about."
At least 1,000 people have been found to have this form of the virus since it was discovered in late September, but their locations have not been disclosed.
Neither Public Health England nor COG-UK, the organizations that discovered the strain, could confirm where it was found.
Online lab records suggest that the first instance of the virus came from the government's Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes on Sept. 20, and PHE said yesterday that the person who provided the swab was from Kent.
There are some concerns that the mutated strain might be a form that the immune system doesn't recognize well and that vaccines might not be as effective. The British Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium said it is investigating this and is also checking whether any of these mutations contribute to increased transmission or not.
The mapping of coronavirus samples confirmed to have mutations in the VUI – 202012/01 shows that almost all of them were in England (large green circle indicates proportional number of samples in England, not geographic area covered), but has also been found in Scotland, Wales and Denmark
Monitoring the strain shows that it is growing faster than all other strains except the dominant strain and making up an increasing proportion of the total infections (the new strain is shown in pink and the timeline runs from May to December).
The mutation of the coronavirus caused a change in the spike protein on its outside (shown in red), which the beetle uses to attach itself to the human body (original illustration of the virus by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ).
Professor Tom Connor, a genomics and virus expert at Cardiff University and a member of COG-UK, said, "It's pretty clear that it has spread beyond (south-east England) and is spreading to other parts of the country."
A history of the virus published online by the Neher Lab at the University of Basel in Switzerland shows how it has become more common over time.
Progress has been slow according to the virus' first official records in September, and it wasn't until the UK's second wave began in late October that cases exploded.
This could be because the strain of the virus is spreading faster and cases are rising faster, according to scientists – or because it was simply found more frequently when cases were rising naturally.
At the time of the first sample, the UK had an average of just 3,700 positive coronavirus tests per day. By early November, when the samples were arriving thick and fast, the average number of positive results had risen to 23,000 per day.
Professor Nick Loman, an expert on microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, said in a briefing this afternoon: “We have no evidence that this came from any other country. It kind of comes out of nowhere.
"We have a long gap between the first cases we saw with this variant in late September (and the recent surge in cases) … it is more likely that they developed in the UK but we don't know."
"Right now there are very few examples of this in other countries – it really is kind of a British phenomenon."
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE NEW STRAIN OF CORONAVIRUS?
What's the burden?
The strain, identified by Public Health England as VUI – 202012/01, is a version of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that is slightly different from older versions of the virus.
It has a number of 17 mutations, some on its spike protein, that change shape slightly.
The spike protein is a part on the outside that the virus uses to attach to the body and cause infection. It is also the main target of the immune system.
In particular, the three main mutations are the change of one amino acid to another and the deletion of two other amino acids. The amino acids are the building blocks of the virus.
The change is called N501Y and the deleted parts are called His69 and Val70.
When was the trunk discovered?
Matt Hancock said yesterday that Public Health England identified the mutations as a separate, significant strain of the virus last week.
Laboratory sequences show that the earliest trace of the strain dates back to September 20 in a Milton Keynes laboratory analyzing people's swab tests.
Not all mutations are logged as new strains once they are found, as some no longer occur often and others turn out to be completely insignificant.
The UK Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) said: "It is difficult to predict whether a particular mutation is important the first time it occurs, given the continued emergence of new mutations."
How common is this virus strain?
It is unclear.
Not every swab test done in the UK has genes analyzed. COG-UK records the genetic sequence of around 10 percent of the Department of Health's swab tests.
According to Matt Hancock, VUI – 202012/01 has been identified in more than 1,000 people to date.
Sampling increased significantly in October and November, but this may simply be a result of more people being infected.
There have been reports of exposure in at least 60 local authorities in England, the Health Secretary said, but most of the evidence came from London and the South East.
Where else was the trunk found?
The Nextstrain.org project, which is logging laboratory reports from the tribe, has found samples from records in Wales, Scotland and Denmark.
Public Health England confirmed it was in Australia too.
The vast majority are in England.
The strain of the virus is likely present in other countries, but may not have been captured by surveillance studies.
Do the mutations make the virus more contagious, more deadly, or make it less likely that a vaccine will work?
There is currently no reason to believe that the mutation will in any way alter the way the virus works or the immune system's ability to prevent Covid-19.
According to Matt Hancock, experts believe this may cause the virus to spread faster, but there is no evidence yet.
COG-UK said, "The vast majority of the mutations seen in SARS-CoV-2 have no apparent impact on the virus, and only a very small minority are believed to be important and affect the virus in any significant way."
The coronavirus has mutated thousands of times since it was first discovered in December, but none appear to have changed its basic behavior.
And he said the reason the strain had now been made public is because it was spreading so quickly.
While it still makes up a small fraction of the cases, it is quickly becoming a larger factor and this could be because it is spreading faster than other strains.
The scientists admitted it could be a coincidence, but said they would expect other strains to see similar voltage spikes that they don't.
The variant named N501Y seems to be spreading faster than the dominant variety (20A.EU1) when it came to the UK from Spain in the summer.
Calling it "unusual", Professor Loman added, "This one swept the country and pretty quickly became the dominant variant and remains the dominant variant in the UK." The first modeling shows that this is growing faster than this. & # 39;
Professor Connor said, “There are a large number of circulating lines in the UK, but the most important thing to think about is to watch the rise over time.
"The results that originally came from the modeling were that in our experience this seems a bit unusual."
The UK Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said yesterday evening: “It appears to be in one area of the country, particularly Kent and parts of London (where cases are growing rapidly).
"Now we don't know what cause and effect are. Will it become more frequent because the rate of increase is faster in one part of the country and therefore there is inevitably a higher proportion (of the burden)?"
& # 39; Or is it possible that this virus (strain) can be more easily transmitted by itself? It is not immediately clear. "
In a report on the new strain released by COG-UK yesterday evening, experts said, "It is difficult to predict whether a particular mutation is important when it first appears, given the continued emergence of new mutations."
They added, "Efforts are being made to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission."
A faster spread of the virus currently seems to be the only possible danger of this mutation.
Scientists say it is unlikely to make the disease worse or affect vaccine effectiveness.
Professor Adam Finn, a pediatrician at the University of Bristol and a member of the Government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: “We tend to see viruses mutate to become more contagious because that is An advantage for them, but I think it's very important that people realize that pathogens tend to stop becoming virulent (causing disease).
"So it's not really to be expected that this virus will kill you or make you seriously ill over time.
"In fact, it is beneficial for pathogens to be more benign because their hosts survive longer and are more contagious, and that helps them spread."
One of the concerns about the mutation was that antibodies developed for one strain of the virus might not work on the mutated version.
Antibodies are substances of the immune system that can attack and destroy the coronavirus in the body. People who have once had the virus – or a vaccine – make and keep the antibodies to protect them in case the virus re-enters their bodies so they can get rid of it before they get sick.
But they are extremely specific. Antibodies to one virus generally won't work for another, and may not even work for other strains of the same virus. That's why people don't get immune to the flu – because influenza viruses mutate so often.
There is a possibility that antibodies to the strain may not work without the virus mutation for the new strain, although it does not appear to be working yet.
As a result, a vaccine may not work as well or people may be at greater risk of contracting the virus a second time.
Professor Finn added, “All of the vaccines we are currently receiving are based on the spike protein.
'They induce immunity directed to many different parts of this protein and any mutation would tend to change the shape and conformation of just one part. So it would be extremely unfortunate if a mutation resulted in a complete breakdown in the protective value of a particular vaccine. & # 39;
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the new strain of the virus to the public yesterday and said it could cause Covid-19 to spread faster
A timeline of the samples published on Nextstrain.org shows that the mutation first appeared in late September but didn't spread until November when England's second wave really took off (Image: the leftmost green dot marks the first recorded instance of the Strain derived from Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, UK)
Some scientists, who responded to the Health Department's announcement of the mysterious new version of the virus, which Mr. Hancock did not reveal at the time, said it was perfectly normal for viruses to develop.
They pointed out that the coronavirus has changed thousands of times since it was discovered this year and none of the mutations appear to have changed it.
Professor Hugh Pennington, a bacteriologist from Aberdeen University, wrote in today's Daily Mail: “Some viruses mutate more than others. The Covid virus has fewer mutations, but they still occur.
"If I were rude to our Health Secretary, I would blame him for starting a new 'fear' project yesterday to justify further tightening of restrictions – and to underpin the new 'lockdown' of London, as they did There are three restrictions. & # 39;
Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, told Times Radio, “I think many of us were surprised that yesterday was the day of the week to identify and possibly relate this particular variant of the virus to it could have this beneficial dissemination – because at the moment the biological evidence, the data is not there.
"We suspect that some of the changes may have been affecting behavior, but we haven't done the necessary laboratory tests so we shouldn't really be saying that."
When asked if he thought the announcement was politically motivated, Professor Ball added, “It's not my job to draw good conclusions, but I think people can see it was made the same day it was made announced in London and parts of the South East will move to the third stage. & # 39;
HOW DOES THE MUTATE STRAIN OF CORONAVIRUS HAVE EMERGE?
Like all viruses, the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has a genetic code that contains all the information the virus needs to survive and reproduce.
It's made from RNA, a single-stranded version of its better-known bigger brother, DNA. RNA is made up of four types of molecules, known simply as A, U, C, and G.
Three of these bases in a row form the blueprint for larger molecules known as amino acids, which are the building blocks of all organic things on earth.
Once the virus infects a person's cells like a human lung cell, it multiplies by forcing the human cell to read its RNA and produce more virus.
These replicas are designed to be exactly the same, which is possible because the RNA is the same, but sometimes the cells can misread the genetic code and cause an error. A mutation occurs here.
A failure in the process can result in one of the A, U, C, G either being deleted or exchanged for another, thereby changing the physical form of the virus.
Other causes of mutations include interactions with other viruses infecting the same cell and changes caused by the host or a person's own immune system.
Most of the mutations to SARS-CoV-2 are due to the latter, researchers have already said.
These happen completely randomly and are common.
Researchers have found that the mutation rate of SARS-CoV-2 is unusually slow compared to other viruses such as flu and HIV.
Even so, the SARS-CoV-2 has mutated, with several different strains emerging.
One, D614G, emerged in February and is now the world's dominant variety.
It does this on the spike protein, which binds to the ACE2 receptor and allows the virus to infect the cell. The mutation at the 614th position on the top saw a & # 39; D & # 39; code for aspartate to a & # 39; G & # 39; for glycine.
The new mutation appeared in the 501st position of the spike protein and saw an & # 39; N & # 39; code for the amino acid asparagine, which for tyrosine changes into a & # 39; Y & # 39; changed.
Of the three bases that code for the amino acid, only one was wrong. Instead of being AAU, it was UAU. This single change changed the amino acid produced and affected the structure of the tip.
In addition to this swap, two amino acids named H69 / V70 were deleted, which are located on the first subunit of the spike protein in the receptor binding domain, a key location where the spike binds to the ACE2 receptor.
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